'Mosaic of errors' caused Alpine ski-train fire that killed 155, court told

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A Salzburg court was told yesterday that a "mosaic of errors" led to a ski-train fire in an Alpine tunnel that killed 155 people 19 months ago.

A Salzburg court was told yesterday that a "mosaic of errors" led to a ski-train fire in an Alpine tunnel that killed 155 people 19 months ago.

In her opening statements, the public prosecutor Eva Danniger-Soriat said the blaze on the funicular railway to the Kitzsteinhorn glacier at Kaprun could have been prevented. "The fire was preventable, and the accused know that," she said. But lawyers for some of the 16 people charged with negligence over the blaze argued that it was wrong to compare the events of 11 November 2000 with what was now known about the cause of the tragedy.

Investigators said the blaze was caused by a faulty and non-regulation fan-heater in the rear driver's cabin. Their report stated that overheated filaments caused oil that had leaked from nearby hydraulic cables to catch fire as the train prepared to make its journey up the mountain on the sunny winter's morning.

The findings tied in with witnesses who said they saw smoke at the rear of the train as it pulled away. The fire began to spread rapidly and, soon after entering the mountain tunnel, the train ground to an automatic halt.

The doors stayed firmly shut but 12 people at the rear smashed a window with ski-boots and sticks and fled back down the mountain to safety.

By the time the doors opened it was too late for the remaining passengers to escape the toxic fumes and flames. Many collapsed and died as they attempted to run up the narrow stairway away from the fire. In the weeks that followed, their relatives would be asked to supply hairbrushes and toothbrushes to allow identification by DNA comparison. Two people in a second cable-car and three in the summit station also suffocated.

Ninety-two of the dead were Austrian and 32 were from the same town in Upper Austria. But the victims came from a total of eight countries, including Germany, Japan and America. A British ski-instructor was also among the dead.

Those now in the dock include employees of the Kaprun Glacier Lift Company, its suppliers and the Transport Ministry. They are charged with negligently causing the fire and negligently endangering the public. They face up to five years in prison if found guilty.

Gustl Prohaczka, whose 25-year-old son, Martin, died in the fire, said he had read the entire indictment and intended to attend the court proceedings every day. He, with the prosecution, wants to know why the passengers were unable to operate the doors manually and why they had no access to fire extinguishers. Mr Prohaczka hopes the case will not be protracted by a series of appeals, "so that we can have some peace".

But an end to the legal wrangling is not in sight. The American lawyer Ed Fagan is seeking to convince an American court to hear compensation claims from victims' relatives. Mr Fagan's case for US jurisdiction rests on the fact that eight Americans died in Kaprun.