Grim task of identifying train fire victims begins

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The grim task of identifying up to 170 skiers who died in an Austrian resort tunnel fire was beginning today.

The grim task of identifying up to 170 skiers who died in an Austrian resort tunnel fire was beginning today.

Britons are believed to be among the dead trapped in the narrow funicular train tunnel taking skiers to the slopes of Kitzsteinhorn, near Kaprun, Downing Street said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed to provide all possible assistance to the Austrian authorities and has offered his deepest condolences to Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

But no British tour operators or families have yet alerted the Foreign Office about Britons who failed to return from a day's skiing.

"We don't know the scale of what we are dealing with yet," a Foreign Office spokeswoman told PA News.

British consular staff were arriving at the resort today, where 30 medical and recovery experts from Austria and Germany were due to begin the harrowing process of identifying the dead.

Volunteers have compiled a list of approximately 2,500 skiers who travelled up to the glacier slopes yesterday before the tragedy, and must now trace the names to find who did not come down, it was reported.

Austrian police say it could be at least two weeks before all the deceased are identified and work to shore up the cabin will have to be completed before any recovery work can begin.

Captain Harald Hofmann, of the federal police in Salzburg, said: "The cabin burned down and the metal melted. We will only be able to identify them from rings, X-rays and dental work."

Austrians, Britons, Germans and Americans are feared to be among the dead, many of whom were thought to be children or teenagers.

Rescuers said the blaze incinerated everything but the train's metal base, while the passengers were "burnt to ash" by the time they reached the scene.

Eighteen Austrian and German survivors were taken to hospital with cuts, bruises and the effects of smoke inhalation. Many were reported to have saved themselves by smashing out windows in the cable-driven train.

Three people in a station at the top of the railway were also killed by poisonous fumes, police in Salzburg said.

It is thought the rail tunnel acted like a chimney, sucking up air and turning a small fire into a raging inferno. Those who survived had escaped by running down the tunnel, away from the fumes.

Salzburg Red Cross commander Gerhard Huber said there were up to 170 victims. Half were Austrians and the rest were from other countries.

The Foreign Office said two emergency helplines have been set up for concerned relatives on 0043 654 720 000 and 0043 662 8144 300.