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17 Dead in Avalanches in Austria

February 24, 1999

LANDECK, Austria (AP) _ Convoys of helicopters rescued stranded tourists in western Austria and another killer avalanche brought new heartache Wednesday, striking just miles from where rescuers were digging for victims of Europe’s worst snowslide this winter.

The latest torrent of snow _ three stories high and 600 feet wide _ smashed into the town of Valzur, where a dead woman and three survivors were pulled from the snow and debris. Five people remained missing, the Austria Press Agency said.

Seven miles away, in Galtuer, the death toll rose to 16 and rescuers searched for 15 others still believed buried by an avalanche on Tuesday.

``This is a catastrophe such as we have not had for centuries,″ said Wendelin Weingartner, governor of Tyrol province in western Austria.

Authorities said among the dead in Galtuer were eight Germans, including two children, two Danes and six Austrians _ all residents of the village of 700.

More than 60 people across Europe have died in avalanches so far this year as the area endures its heaviest snows in decades. In Chamonix, France, 12 people were killed in an avalanche earlier this month.

Rescue squads couldn’t reach the winter sports resort of Galtuer until Wednesday morning due to bad weather and roads blocked by earlier avalanches. The government began an airbridge between Landeck and Galtuer at first light Wednesday.

A steady stream of helicopters landing and taking off from the Pontlatz Austrian army base took rescuers into Galtuer and by afternoon, soldiers in Landeck were quickly loading the choppers with pallets of fresh fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs. Survivors and tourists were flown out on the return leg.

Many of the people arriving refused to talk to reporters. Some had tears in their eyes, others looked relieved and a few described digging in the snow in search of victims.

``My husband and I raced out and found two small children in the snow. They were probably dead,″ said a Belgian woman who gave her name only as Anita. Authorities never told her whether the children survived or not.

Sigrid Kunz of Marburg, Germany, arrived with her daughter and husband after spending the night in a hotel basement, lest another ``once-in-a-century″ avalanche hit Galtuer.

``I thought it was just a storm,″ said Hanno Heinz, 17, from Radstadt, Austria. He said the snow came with such force that it blew open the hinged windows of the guesthouse, dumping 4 inches of snow on the floor.

About 1,000 people, most of them tourists, were evacuated Wednesday before bad weather and darkness stopped the flights. Heavy snow began to fall again late Wednesday. Six U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters arrived in Landeck by nightfall but could not continue to Galtuer.

Weingartner said rescue efforts on the ground would continue around the clock.

The Galtuer avalanche was the worst in Austria since January 1954, when 56 people were killed in Blons, a town in neighboring Vorarlberg province.

In Switzerland, a brief improvement in the weather allowed helicopters to move some 4,000 people out of areas cut off by snow. But another 100,000 were still stranded. The Swiss air force said it had 32 helicopters working, mostly taking supplies into the affected areas.

The body of a 42-year-old man killed by an avalanche Tuesday was found 300 yards below the remains of a farmhouse at Bristen, Switzerland, police said. Rescuers in Evolene, Switzerland, found the eighth and ninth victims Wednesday from avalanches on Sunday; one person was still missing.

In France, a 26-year-old hiker died early Wednesday, shortly after rescue teams plucked him and his wife out of a snowstorm in the Pyrenees mountains, police said. The French couple were part of a group of six who went missing during a snowstorm while on a hike Sunday.

In Romania, melting snow and heavy rains swamped about 4,000 homes in northern and western Romania, officials reported Wednesday. About 110 towns and villages in the country, including the cities of Arad and Oradea, have been flooded.

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