Still no news of whether Britons were involved in ski train disaster

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The Independent Online

British officials were today awaiting identification of the 40 unknown victims of the Austrian tunnel fire disaster which killed at least 155 skiers.

British officials were today awaiting identification of the 40 unknown victims of the Austrian tunnel fire disaster which killed at least 155 skiers.

It is still not known if any Britons were among the dead, but none were found during the early identification of more than 100 victims.

One group of British skiers was only minutes away from the funicular railway to the Kitzsteinhorn mountain, near Kaprun, when the fatal blaze began, it emerged today.

The five were queuing at a station just yards away from the funicular railway for a cable car to take them up the mountain, it was reported.

Investigators carrying out the grim task of identifying the dead skiers and snowboarders said the victims had been pinpointed with 90 per cent certainty.

But 40 of them are still of unconfirmed nationalities, Salzburg provincial governor Franz Schausberger said.

The remaining victims include 52 Austrians, 42 Germans, 10 Japanese, eight from the United States, two Slovenes and one Croat, he added.

Some 33 of the Austrians came from the town of Wells and knew each other. They were all civil servants working at the town hall.

The small village of Kaprun has closed a protective circle around the victims and their relations. Everyone knows somebody who failed to return from Saturday's skiing trip, but neither the officials nor the locals will say who they are. Their tragic fate, nevertheless, is the talk of the community.

At Pension Hauserhof, for instance, a room has fallen vacant, but is not available. A family from Upper Austria rented three rooms for six people. Mother, father and daughter-in-law were spending yesterday at the youth hostel, which has been converted into a counselling centre. They lost two children and their uncle.

And Germany was mourning 19-year old Sandra Schmitt, world free-style skiing champion of 1999, as well as four budding champions, some as young as 10. "They were four of our most talented skiing hopes," the German Skiing Association said of the three boys and one girl.

It is still unclear how many people boarded the cable car before the fire on Saturday, but it had a capacity of 180 people and was believed to be full.

The human remains from the train are being taken to Salzburg, where DNA testing was due to begin today.

No British families or tour operators have yet alerted the Foreign Office about missing Britons, and consular staff have arrived in Kaprun.

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.

The group of Britons who were queuing for a nearby cable car lift when the inferno broke out today told of conditions on board the funicular train.

Roger Plahay, 31, of Maidenhead, Berks, husband and wife Harminder and Pinder Sehmi, 38 and 37, and their 10-year-old daughter Amrita, of Oxford, and Jason Hughes, had even considered using the railway, the Daily Telegraph reported.

They said it was unclear what had happened in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy on the train, which they had used in previous ski trips.

Mr Hughes, 30, from Chester, told the newspaper of conditions on the train when he used it last year.

"It must have been horrific on there. There is no room to move. You really are packed in like sardines," he said.

"The only thing is the people must have died quickly because of the smoke. But it must have been awful, this is not something you can even imagine."

Only 19 people survived the disaster - nine who smashed train windows to get out and 10 who were waiting at the top of the tunnel.

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