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Austria Cable Car Fire Trial Begins

June 18, 2002

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VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Cable car operators, technicians and government officials created a ``mosaic of mistakes″ that led to the deaths of 155 people in a grisly cable car fire at a ski resort, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

More than 19 months after Austria’s deadliest peacetime disaster, 16 defendants went on trial Tuesday for negligence concerning the Nov. 11, 2000, inferno in Kaprun, 60 miles south of Salzburg. Eight victims were Americans.

``The fire was preventable,″ said Salzburg’s public prosecutor, Eva Danniger-Soriat.

The operators, technicians and government officials bypassed safety measures that could have saved the lives of the victims, Danniger-Soriat was quoted by the Austria Press Agency as saying.

The fire broke out as a crowded cable car carried 161 skiers, snowboarders and a driver up the Kitzsteinhorn glacier.

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

Twelve people escaped by 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 stopped at 9:11 a.m.

The choking smoke was drawn up to the station at the top, killing three people. The driver and sole passenger of another cable car heading downhill also died.

Investigators traced the disaster 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 afire, filling the cab with flames and toxic smoke.

Danniger-Soriat, the prosecutor, charged that the defendants failed to impose fire safety measures even though they were not required by law.

Defense lawyers argued that charges of negligence were unjustified. Wolfgang Brandstetter later told Austrian television, ``I doubt it will be possible to find any individual guilty for this terrible catastrophe, which was only made possible by an extremely unfortunate and absurd chain of causal factors.″

The judge trying the case, Manfred Seiss, has said, ``No one is being accused of intentionally causing the fire.″

``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,″ Seiss said in an interview with the weekly magazine News.

The defendants include three top employees of 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 with negligent endangerment of public safety. They face prison sentences ranging from six months to five years if convicted.

The trial is scheduled to run in two phases, with the first continuing until July 19. After a summer recess, the trial is to resume Sept. 2.

Most victims were from Austria and Germany. Others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

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 German mother whose 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. ``When 155 people die and no one takes responsibility for this, that really hurts.″

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