170 die in Alpine tunnel fire

The Washington Post

SALZBURG, Austria – As many as 170 people, many of them children and teen-agers headed to a snowboarding competition, were killed Saturday when a devastating fire consumed a train in an Alpine tunnel, trapping fleeing passengers in acrid black smoke and burning the train down to its chassis. At least two Americans were among the missing.

On a perfect fall morning, the single-carriage train was packed to its capacity of 180 with skiers and snowboarders anticipating perfect snow conditions as it was pulled by cable up the popular Kitzsteinhorn mountain near Kaprun, southwest of Salzburg. The train was only 600 yards inside a 2 1/2 mile-long tunnel through the mountain when fire broke out around 9 a.m., officials said.

“There are at least 150 dead, certainly primarily young people, who perhaps decided early today on the spur of the moment to do some mountain sports,” Franz Schausberger, the provincial governor of Salzburg, told Germany’s NTV Television.

Schausberger said it was impossible to know how many people were killed, but he noted that a snowboarding event scheduled at the summit had been expected to draw large numbers of young people.

“This is the most terrible accident in Salzburg in living memory,” he said. “Unfortunately, we still know very little. We still do not know who was on board.”

U.S. military personnel based in Germany may have been among the victims. A spokesman at Ramstein Air Base said two people from U.S. ski clubs in Kaiserslautern, Germany, were unaccounted for. The U.S. Embassy in Berlin said Americans from another military base may also have been in the area. There were unconfirmed reports that 23 Americans perished in the fire.

Authorities don’t know what caused the fire, and the wreckage will not be examined until toSday. But there was speculation that electrical problems or a cigarette may have been to blame.

Most of the victims apparently escaped from the train but were overcome by smoke as they fled through the tunnel up the mountain. They may also have been hampered by cumbersome skiwear. The fire, which raged for hours, was so severe that three people were killed by fumes at the top of the tunnel. A driver bringing an empty carriage down the mountain was also killed.

Fresh air was sucked in at the entrance of the tunnel, fueling the fire and creating massive amounts of black smoke that filled the tunnel and billowed out at the top, officials said.

“The fire was drawn upward as in a chimney,” a spokesman for the Salzburg state government told the Reuters news agency. Schausberger said it “spread at a raging speed – like in a fireplace.” The fire burned for hours, preventing rescuers from entering the tunnel.

“If the fire was so large that people died of smoke inhalation more than (one mile) away in the mountain station, then it must have been an inferno,” said Klaus Eisenkolb, an engineer for the system.

At least 18 people were treated at local hospitals, including nine who escaped by running downhill and nine who were waiting at the entrance of the tunnel for the next ride up when the smoke overwhelmed them.

Police blocked access to the area around the site and began to compile a list of the estimated 2,500 people on the mountain so they could begin the process of identifying the victims.

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