Stunned village mourns tunnel fire victims

Associated Press

KAPRUN, Austria — Relatives and friends who had waited through the night in this Alpine village began to get word Sunday on whether their loved ones were among the dead in a cable car fire that killed about 170 people in a mountain tunnel.

With the village hall draped in black and candles burning on shop steps, shattered townsfolk gathered in the Kaprun church for Sunday Mass. As they mourned, emergency crews tried to reach the spot where scores of people, many children and teen-agers, were killed Saturday by smoke and flames.

The car, pulled on rails underground for most of the 3,200 yards up the Kitzsteinhorn mountain to a glacier region, stopped, blazing, about 600 yards inside a mountain tunnel Saturday morning. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Rescuers could not reach the victims as the fire raged on. Passengers tried to flee through the deep tunnel, but most were felled by the thick smoke and flames. Eighteen people survived, mainly by fleeing downwards in the tunnel where the smoke was thinner, authorities said.

It was still unclear how many people were in the cable car, but it was believed that it had a capacity of 180 people and was full.

The retrieval of the bodies was delayed by toxic fumes inside the tunnel and the need to secure the charred car. As night rolled in, officials said the accident site remained too dangerous, suggesting recovery efforts could be delayed until Mtoday.

Once the remains of the victims are brought into town, authorities plan to set up a large tent in the town center where relatives and friends can say final farewells. From there, authorities planned to take the bodies to Salzburg for forensic examination.

Authorities said Sunday they had identified 155 of the victims with near certainty. Among them were 52 Austrians, 42 Germans, 10 Japanese, eight Americans, two Slovenes and a Croat.

The victims were identified by eliminating those who had returned alive from a list of 2,500 people who had taken the cable car up the slope before the fire.

Three U.S. army personnel were confirmed among the dead. The Americans were part of a group of mostly military personnel from Wuerzburg, Germany, and their families, said Maj. Drew Stathis, a member of the group.

Stathis said missing Americans from the group included a family of four with two children, an engaged couple and a man and his son.

As evening fell, the village of 3,100 was unusually quiet, with little of the usual ski-season bustle. The few locals on the street were outnumbered by the hundreds of police and rescue officials.

Psychiatrist Thomas Kamolz, who talked to survivors, said they told him of someone inside the car breaking a window with his ski pole and a survivor who "saw a father throwing out his child" in order to save the baby.

Most of the victims apparently managed to escape the car but were killed by fumes while trying to run up narrow stairs leading out of the tunnel, said Manfred Mueller, the cable car’s head technician. Those who survived apparently ran the opposite way, avoiding most of the smoke being blown upward through the tunnel by strong drafts.

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