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Trial Opens in Austria Over Cable Car Blaze

June 19, 2002|From Times Wire Services

VIENNA -- Sixteen people charged with negligence in Austria's deadliest peacetime disaster went on trial Tuesday, with a prosecutor saying that cable car operators, technicians and government officials created a "mosaic of mistakes" that led to the deaths of 155 people in a grisly ski resort fire.

Eight of the victims in the Nov. 11, 2000, inferno in Kaprun, about 50 miles from Salzburg, were Americans.

"The fire was preventable," said Salzburg's public prosecutor, Eva Danninger-Soriat.

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

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

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

Twelve people escaped by using ski boots and poles to break windows.

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.

Defense lawyers for the 16 accused employees of Gletscherbahnen Kaprun AG, its suppliers and inspectors said their clients had done their jobs properly and that no one could have foreseen the danger.

The defendants face prison sentences ranging from six months to five years if convicted.

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