Town mourns 32 as it comes to terms with another tragedy

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Gudrun Bruchmair survived a fire that killed 11 of her friends as a young woman, only to die in the fire that consumed a packed Austrian funicular train as it carried skiers up the Kitzsteinhorn mountain on Saturday.

Gudrun Bruchmair survived a fire that killed 11 of her friends as a young woman, only to die in the fire that consumed a packed Austrian funicular train as it carried skiers up the Kitzsteinhorn mountain on Saturday.

Her friend Kurt Mayr said yesterday: "When Gudrun survived the first fire, she told me she felt as if she had been born a second time." Thirty-one more of Mr Mayr's friends and colleagues died with Ms Bruchmair on the train.

The pavement outside Wels' baroque town hall is littered with tiny candles in red glass holders - the candles that have sprung up all over Austria as the country grieves. Black banners hang from the town's public buildings. The town is mourning the second tragic fire to bring death to its town hall staff in 17 years.

Last Thursday, a party of the town hall staff and their families set off on the annual office skiing weekend. Wels, in the lowlands of Upper Austria, is a long way from the Kitzsteinhorn, but the group members had chosen the mountain because they had heard the skiing was good there this year. Thirty-four set off from Wels. Only two returned alive.

The mourning is a sort of monstrous déjà vu for Mr Mayr and his colleagues. In 1983, the town hall organised an office holiday in Istanbul. Their hotel burnt down. Eleven town hall staff were among the dead.

Ms Bruchmair was one of those who escaped then. She was only 23 in 1983. Kurt Rehak escaped as well. Mr Mayr said he refused ever to speak of his ordeal in the burning hotel. On Saturday Mr Rehak, too, died in the train fire. Now Mr Mayr, the town hall press officer, has to write press releases about the deaths of his friends. The office next to his is empty, a solitary candle flickering on the desk.A black ribbon is tied to the name plate on the door, Dr Ursula Kipper.

Dr Kipper died on the train with her boyfriend, Manfred Schonhuber. "On Thursday, I said to her, 'See you on Monday'," said Mr Mayr. "Then we heard the news on the TV."

On Monday, Ms Bruchmair's parents came to the town hall. Yesterday Dr Kipper's father visited. "These are hard times to keep control," said Mr Mayr. "It's very tough not to cry." Mr Mayr used to be a big game hunter: he has killed lions and grizzly bears.

In a darkened office the Mayor, Peter Koits, stared at a list of the dead. "I saw these people every day," he said, his finger pausing at the names of three or four he knew particularly well.

He stops at the names Kurt Klauswenger, Petra Klauswenger, Gerald Sundmayr, Britta Sundmayr: married couples where both husband and wife died on the train. Each has left two young children, nowthe town has four orphans to care for.

"The children are with their grandparents now," Mr Koits said. "We will help in any way we can, we will help the children, and all the bereaved. We will help from the heart. I don't know if anybody is to blame for this, but if someone is, we will find justice for them." In normal times, Mr Koits spends his days trying to get the people of his town to treat its large immigrant population better. On the square outside, a woman swathed in an Islamic black chador walks past the traditional Austrian buildings.

One in eight people in Wels is an immigrant, the people under attack from Jörg Haider, the notorious leader of Austria's Freedom Party. But Wels is another Austria; where the politician, Mr Koits, dreams of peaceful co-existence.

For now, though, Mr Koits can think of only one thing. "Why did it happen to us twice?" he asked. He sighed, and shook his head. " Schichsal," he said. Schichsal: it means fate.

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