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32 Dead in Avalanches in Austria

February 25, 1999

LANDECK, Austria (AP) _ Rescuers mounted a last-ditch effort today to find survivors from two killer avalanches that slammed into neighboring villages in the Austrian Alps, but the death toll rose to 32 and hopes dimmed for six people believed still buried.

Helicopters this morning began ferrying out hundreds of tourists still stranded around Galtuer in Austria’s western Tyrol region, hit by a pair of deadly snowslides the previous two days.

Authorities warned the risk of more avalanches was extremely high after about 1 1/2 feet of new snow fell in 24 hours. Another avalanche hit Switzerland today, injuring at least one person.

A total of 27 people were confirmed dead and four remained missing in Galtuer, where Europe’s deadliest avalanche of the winter struck Tuesday. The search concentrated on two ruined houses where 10 bodies were pulled out of the deep snow early today _ several of them children _ the Austria Press Agency reported.

Twenty-three people had been rescued there, eight of them injured.

Six Dutch citizens, from two families, were among the dead, said Hanna Tijmes of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the Netherlands. Two family members survived, having just left the house they were staying in when the avalanche hit.

Also among the dead found in Galtuer on Wednesday were eight Germans, including two children, two Danes and six Austrians.

Still reeling from Tuesday’s powerful avalanche, the area was hit by a second deadly wall of snow on Wednesday that rolled into the hamlet of Valzur, 7 miles to the northeast, flattening 11 houses.

Three more bodies were retrieved from the mass of snow today in Valzur, where two others were found dead the previous day, and two people remained missing, authorities said. A man and a 4-year-old boy were pulled from the snow Wednesday, shaken but alive.

An Austrian woman and a German woman were identified today as among the Valzur victims.

Austrian army rescue flights resumed today after being halted by fresh snow and darkness late Wednesday, reinforced by helicopters from the German army and from U.S. army bases in Germany. Authorities called it the biggest airlift ever in Austria.

As many as 10 U.S. Black Hawk helicopters shuttled survivors out to Landeck, landing in a swirl of snow on a blocked-off autobahn outside the town. A string of buses waited to take the survivors to an army camp where psychological counseling was available.

The airlift not only brings out the victims but takes in rescuers and a steady stream of supplies of fresh food and other items.

``No one is going hungry,″ said Wendelin Weingartner, governor of Tyrol province.

Roads into the mountainous area remained blocked, but maintenance crews hoped to clear them by Friday.

Video footage from Galtuer showed scores of rescuers using long metal probes and dogs trained to locate people buried under snow.

Automobiles were crushed by walls of snow or hurled like toys by the force of Tuesday’s avalanche. The top floor of one house was missing, as if sliced off by a giant razor blade.

Austrian army officers coordinating the rescue efforts told Austrian television they hoped today to fly out up to 700 tourists still stranded in Galtuer.

About 1,000 people, many of them Germans and other foreign tourists, were evacuated Wednesday.

The Galtuer avalanche is the worst to hit central Europe this winter, as the region endures its heaviest snowfall in 50 years. More than 70 people across Europe have died in avalanches this year.

Switzerland was struck by another one today that destroyed several houses in the tourist resort of Leukerbad. About 30 people were evacuated from a damaged building, and authorities said at least one person was taken to the hospital with injuries. A search for other possible casualties was under way.

Leukerbad, which lies in the Valais Alps, is one of the resorts that has been cut off by snow.

Rescuers on the French side of the Alps today brought down three stranded French hikers who had built an igloo after becoming lost in a blizzard 10 days earlier. They were flown by helicopter to a hospital in Moutiers and pronounced ``weak but safe and sound.″

Update hourly