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Deadly Avalanches Haunt the Alps

February 26, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Walls of white death crashing down alpine mountainsides recall thousands of years of deadly avalanches in the region.

Europe is enduring its snowiest winter in a half-century as fresh snow piles on tope of crusts of old snow, the formula for deadly avalanches. Austria and Switzerland especially have been hit hard.

It is a danger that has long threatened residents of the Alps, and those passing through.

At midnight on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1602, ``a hideously gruesome avalanche smashed into the town of Davos,″ Swiss chronicler Flury Sprecher von Bernegg wrote.

``The rescuers were summoned by the ringing of church bells. The rescue effort continued for three days and three nights. ... Thirteen people were found dead under the snow; seven in one house, four in a church. A 14-year-old girl was found alive after being buried in the snow for 36 hours,″ von Bernegg wrote, as quoted in ``The Avalanche Book″ by Betsy Armstrong and Knox Williams.

Tales of devastating snowslides in the Alps reach back well before that.

``Detached snow drags the men into the abyss and snow falling rapidly from high summits engulfs the living squadrons,″ the poet Silius Italicus wrote of avalanches that struck Hannibal’s invading army in 218 B.C.

The African general Hannibal Barca lost 18,000 men, 2,000 horses and several elephants crossing the mountains to invade Italy from the north, according to Roman historians.

He might well have agreed with Austrian Matthias Zdarsky, who wrote during World War I: ``The mountains in winter are more dangerous than the Italians.″

Italian and Austrian troops fought four years of bitter battles in the Tyrol region during that war. From 1914 to 1918 avalanche deaths in both armies may have topped 40,000, according to the book ``Darkest Hours,″ by Jay Robert Nash. In one incident alone, on Dec. 12, 1916, snow swept away an Austrian barracks, killing 253.

It is not just the military that suffers, of course.

On Jan. 20, 1951, for example, an estimated 240 people died when accumulated snows gave way after a series of heavy rains, sweeping down on a dozen towns in Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Nineteen died in Vals, Switzerland and six snowslides within an hour devastated the Swiss town of Andermatt, killing 13.

``The only signal the avalanches gave was the sound of hurricanelike winds that preceded the rush of millions of tons of snow, which quickly snapped off the thousands of trees that had been planted to prevent just such an occurrence,″ Nash reported.

Twenty-seven people died in 1869 when an avalanche struck Biel, Switzerland. One family _ a husband and wife and four children _ were hurled bodily into the street, still in their beds, historians say.

There were 84 fatalities among the 200 residents of Obergesteln, Switzerland, when an avalanche struck on Feb. 20, 1720, Robert Henson reports in the January-February edition of the magazine Weatherwise.

On Jan. 17, 1718, a wall of snow destroyed every house in the Swiss village of Leukerbad, killing 52 people. Two centuries earlier, in 1518, 61 died when snow engulfed the same hamlet.

Other major Alpine avalanches with 100 or more fatalities include:

_1499, avalanche killed 400 in mercenary army in Great St. Bernard Pass, Switzerland. They were en route to attack Milan, Italy.

_1598, Graubunden, Switzerland, avalanche, 100 deaths.

_1606, Davos-Frauenkirch, Switzerland, avalanche, 100 killed.

_1689, Montafon Valley, Austria, avalanche, 300 killed.

_1755, 200 killed in avalanches in German, French and Italian Alps.

_1799, hundreds of Russian soldiers killed in snowslide at Panixer Pass, Switzerland.

_1954, avalanches in the German, Italian and Austrian Alps killed a total of 145.

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