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Austria Cable Car Officials on Trial

June 18, 2002

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VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ A year and a half after Austria’s deadliest peacetime disaster, sixteen defendants went on trial Tuesday for negligence in a grisly underground cable car fire that killed 155 people at a ski resort.

Prosecutors say the carelessness of the defendants _ cable car operators, company chiefs, technicians and government officials _ was to blame for the Nov. 11, 2000 blaze in a tunnel in Kaprun, 60 miles south of Salzburg. Eight of the victims were Americans.

The fire broke out as a crowded cable car carried 161 skiers and snowboarders, as well as a driver, up the Kitzsteinhorn glacier on a warm day early in the ski season.

Smoke poured from the rear of the car as it headed into the tunnel, where it came to a stop at 9:03 a.m. The electric doors failed to open, trapping the passengers inside.

Twelve people escaped, using ski boots and poles to break windows. Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition and had to be identified through dental records and DNA tests.

Several victims’ watches had stopped at 9:11 a.m.

The tunnel drew choking smoke up to the station at the top, where three people were killed by the fumes. The driver and sole passenger of a second cable car, headed downhill, also died.

Investigators traced the accident to a defective and illegally installed space heater that caused hydraulic brake oil in nearby pipes to overheat. The scalding oil dripped onto the cable car’s plastic-coated floor and set it on fire, filling the cab with flames and toxic smoke.

Security was tight around the trial site in Salzburg, a Catholic youth center that was being used because available courthouses were too small. Police sealed off the area two hours before proceedings started, allowing only cars with previously obtained permission to approach.

The judge trying the case, Manfred Seiss, has said the disaster was easily preventable.

``No one is being accused of intentionally causing the fire,″ Seiss said in an interview with the weekly News. ``But it’s necessary to investigate whether it can be traced to merely a chain of unfortunate circumstances, or whether it was carelessness _ or put in legal terms, negligence.″

The defendants include three top employees of the cable car company, Gletscherbahnen Kaprun, and three transport ministry officials. The rest are engineers and technical experts.

Thirteen defendants are charged with negligence leading to the outbreak of fire and three are charged with negligent endangerment of public safety. All face prison sentences ranging from six months to five years if convicted.

Many relatives of the victims say the charges are too lenient and the potential sentences too short.

``A five-year sentence is completely out of proportion to what they did wrong. And we don’t believe anyone will get the full five years anyway,″ said Ursula Geiger, a spokeswoman for the relatives of German victims. Her 14-year-old son died in the fire.

``No one feels guilty for this, and their companies will protect them,″ Geiger told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. ``When 155 people die and no one takes responsibility for this, that really hurts.″

All 16 defendants have said they consider themselves innocent, and police say that each has blamed others during questioning.

The trial is scheduled to recess for summer on July 19, resume Sept. 2 and end Sept. 25.

Most of the victims were from Austria and Germany. Eight were Americans, including a family of four and a newly engaged couple. Others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

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