Four still missing at ice rink after safety fears halt rescue efforts

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German rescue workers trying to reach four people still missing after the collapse of an ice rink had to halt their efforts yesterday while heavy machinery was used to clear away rubble and make the structure safe. Hopes of finding the survivors were fading as the rescue effort resumed last night amid fresh snow and freezing temperatures.

Hubertus Andrae, the German police chief heading the rescue effort in the resort town of Bad Reichenhall, where the roof of the rink collapsed under the weight of snow late on Monday, said the hunt for survivors had been interrupted because the lives of emergency workers were potentially at risk. Special cranes were brought in to clear the way for rescuers to continue their search. The two machines picked away at the facade and the remains of the roof.

Shortly before the search was halted yesterday, rescue teams pulled the bodies of two more victims from the rubble. Eleven bodies, including those of six children, have been recovered.

Eighteen others were injured when the roof caved in, three of them seriously, and 16 people escaped unhurt. Police estimated that about 50, mainly young people enjoying the last day of their Christmas holidays, had been using the rink when the building collapsed.

Rudi Zeif, a fire chief involved in the rescue operation, said there was "still a lot of hope" of finding survivors. "There may be people holding out in hollows in the rubble, although we have not heard any knocking sounds which could help us trace them," he said.

More than 500 firefighters, police and soldiers were called to the scene after the collapse and yesterday six cranes were being deployed to lift debris. Rescue workers said their efforts were being hampered by further heavy snowfall and fears that remaining sections of the building would collapse. "At least half of the main hall of the ice rink was mostly searched by hand," said one rescue worker.

State prosecutors and police have begun an investigation to determine the cause of the collapse. The chairman of a local ice-hockey club claimed that a training session had been cancelled hours before the incident because of warnings that the heavy snowfall had made the rink unsafe. But local officials insisted there was no obvious explanation for the accident. The mayor Wolfgang Heitmeier, who is responsible for overseeing the safety of the rink, said the volume of snow on the roof of the building had been tested the morning before the collapse and had been found to be well within safety limits. "There was no reason for us to declare the building unsafe or to order its evacuation," he said

Onlookers gathered at police barriers sealing off the rescue site yesterday. There was speculation that the collapse could have been caused by leaks in the building's roof after a 13-year-old boy claimed he had seen pools of water on the rink's surface while skating hours before the tragedy.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, joined Bavarian politicians in delivering a message of sympathy to the victims' families. "We all hope that the rescue services will manage to recover survivors from the wreckage of the ice rink. We are offering every conceivable assistance," she said.

Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian Prime Minister, said it was too early to apportion blame. "That's for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. The priority is caring for the survivors and the victims' families," he said.