Erwin, the quick-thinking builder, is hero of the tunnel inferno

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The Independent Online

The survivors of the Austrian tunnel inferno owe their lives to a German builder called Erwin who persuaded them their only escape route lay in the direction of the flames, said one of the 12 passengers who fought their way out of Kaprun's blazing funicular train.

The survivors of the Austrian tunnel inferno owe their lives to a German builder called Erwin who persuaded them their only escape route lay in the direction of the flames, said one of the 12 passengers who fought their way out of Kaprun's blazing funicular train.

Gerhard Hanetseder, a 39-year-old Austrian, described the panic gripping those in the last carriage as choking passengers, with no access to fire-extinguishers and unable to contact the driver at the front, battled for their lives. "We entered the tunnel and I said, 'There is a small fire'," Mr Hanetseder told interviewers. "After a bit, when we were in the tunnel, the train stopped automatically. Then the smoke came and panic started.

"We tried desperately to open the doors but we couldn't. There was more and more panic because this tiny fire had turned into a big one and the whole cabin behind us had started burning.

"By chance, some of the passengers smashed a side window with a ski shoe or a ski or some other object. At what seemed like the last minute I saw a way out and thought, 'We can do that too'.

"I tried to take my daughter but she didn't quite make it through. So I gave her a little push and she fell down into the tunnel. I followed. How I got out, I do not know because the gap wasn't very wide."

Instinctively, the passengers turned to run up the stairs, away from the flames lapping the empty driver's cabin at the lower end of the train. Erwin, the Bavarian builder, had different ideas. "We must go down," he shouted in the confusion. "Trust me."

Those who did are still alive. "I have a fireplace at home," he said later. "When you open the vents, the flames go up automatically. I knew if we wanted to live, we had to go down."

The passengers linked hands in the dark and fled, as quickly as their ski-boots allowed, Mr Hanetseder clutching his 12-year-old daughter.

Erwin tripped over a rail. In the struggle to get up he took in a lungful of carbon monoxide. But the human chain held, and Erwin was dragged along. The journey back to the living lasted 10 minutes.

Those who tried to follow this group, and the other passengers who went up the tunnel, all perished.

The youngest victim of the disaster is believed to be five-year old Maximilian Klapper from the nearby community of Maria Alm. His mother did not want to go skiing on Saturday. She is alive. Her husband, Martin, Maximilian and his 15-year-old brother are probably dead.

There is no more hope for the eight-year-old boy the village of Kaprun has been whispering about since Saturday afternoon. Rudi Neumair boarded the 9 o'clock funicular with a ski instructor, and has not been seen again.

Sandra Mülleder, a 17-year-old from the village of Leonfelden, died with her nine-year-old brother, Patrick, their father, Hans, and Patrick's 12-year old friend.

The dead also include an American family. Major Michael Goodridge, 36 and from Texas, was stationed with the US Army at Wuerzburg in Germany. On their ski outing over the long Veterans' Day weekend he perished with his wife, Jennifer, 35, and sons Kyle, five, and Michael, seven.

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