Fury as court clears 16 over inferno on Austrian ski train

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The Independent Online

Relatives of 155 skiers killed in an Alpine train fire stormed out of an Austrian court yesterday after a judge acquitted 16 people of criminal negligence .

Relatives of 155 skiers killed in an Alpine train fire stormed out of an Austrian court yesterday after a judge acquitted 16 people of criminal negligence .

"This is a slap in the face to all the relatives of the dead," said Brigitte Hochhalter, an Austrian who lost her only son, Daniel, in the November 2000 blaze at Kaprun. "Where is justice? Where is fairness? In my eyes there is no justice in Austria," said Peter Decker, whose 34-year-old son died.

Judge Manfred Seiss ruled there was insufficient evidence that the 16 suspects, who had faced possible prison terms of up to five years, were responsible for events that led up to the disaster. Roy Challis, the father of the only British victim, said that he was "very angry and extremely disgusted" with the decision. "There has been a serious miscarriage of justice, not just for Kevin, but for the other 154 people who died," he said.

Kevin Challis, a ski instructor, died after giving up his seat to an elderly man on the last funicular that made it up the mountain safely. He told his eight-year-old daughter he would meet her at the top and waited for the next train.

It turned into a fireball after a heater problem. The tunnel acted like a chimney, creating a flow of air that fed the flames. The driver was at first unable to open the doors of the carriages. Then, when he managed to do so, many of those trying to escape up the tunnel were killed by toxic fumes from the blaze. The only survivors were 12 people who broke a window to get out of the carriage and listened to a fellow skier's advice to go down the tunnel.

Prosecutors had said that the fire had been caused by an electric heater not designed to be used in the carriages. They argued there had been no fire-fighting equipment and that the doors should have opened when the train stopped.

But the judge cleared the 16 suspects, including resort workers, train operators and safety inspectors of negligence, saying they could not be held personally responsible.

Prosecutors said that they would appeal against the verdict. Separate trials are continuing in New York and Germany, where lawyers for the American and German victims are seeking billions of dollars in compensation. Ed Fagan, an American lawyer, said that more relatives would now join the civil case in the US. "These people did not die accidentally; they were killed ... The only thing that this case proves is that there is no justice in Austria," he said yesterday.

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