Cable Train Fire in Austria

Officials raised the death toll from 155 to up to 175 people that may have died in the fire that engulfed a cable train packed with skiers as it traveled through an Alpine tunnel on Saturday.

Franz Schausberger, provincial governor of Salzburg, told a news conference the identity of 155 victims had been established with 90 percent certainty. Eight of those identified were U.S. citizens.

The fire began as the funicular train made its ascent up Austria’s 3,500-yard Kitzsteinhorn mountain.

Schausberger said the casualty figures included three people who died of smoke inhalation at the top of the 2.5 mile tunnel. They were more than a mile and a half from the train, but the smoke was so hot and toxic that it killed them.

Twelve people managed to escape from the terrifying blaze in the steep tunnel near Kaprun, southwest of Salzburg, but one was seriously injured. Including several firefighters who were injured, 18 people are still being treated in hospital while 10 others have been released.

Officials believe the fire started at the lower end of the single-carriage train at around 9 a.m. soon after it began its ascent up the 45-degree incline.

Those who escaped were at the bottom end of the vehicle, which came to a halt some 656 yards inside the tunnel. They managed to break windows and free themselves.

But the remaining passengers are likely to have been quickly engulfed by fire or overcome by deadly smoke as the blaze raced upwards.

It was unclear whether there was anyone except the driver on board a second train which was descending through the tunnel. But as the accident happened, that train, which also became stranded, was likely to have been virtually empty.

Champion Skier Among Dead

Among those killed was freestyle skier Sandra Schmitt, a German world champion, and her parents.

Schmitt, 19, claimed the moguls title at the 1999 freestyle world championships at Meiringen in Switzerland.

“This accident marks the greatest tragedy in the history of skiing as a sport,” Helmut Weinbuch, head of the German Skiing Federation, told the federation’s official Web site.

Weinbuch said four German youth skiers and three trainers were among the dead.

“We can barely comprehend the scale of the accident and our hearts go out to the victims’ relatives,” Weinbuch said.

Separately, Austria’s APA news agency reported that four members of the hearing-impaired national ski team were also killed, among them slalom and giant slalom world champion Josef Schaupper.

Recovery efforts, which were hampered earlier by poisonous fumes and fears that the train could plunge down the tunnel, have now begun.

Rescue officials say that some of the victims’ bodies are burned beyond recognition. Those who could be identified will be handed over to relatives, and the rest will flown to a criminal pathological lab in Salzburg, where identifications will be made using dental records and DNA testing.

A team of 40 psychologists, doctors and social workers are on scene to help friends and relatives of the victims as well as the rescue teams.

Cause Unknown

Experts remain puzzled by the cause of the fire as the train, which is drawn up the mountain by a cable powered by engines at the top, did not have an engine or on-board power source.

It was also furnished with materials that were supposed to be fire-proof. Media speculation that the blaze may have been caused by an electrical fault or a cigarette could not be confirmed. One survivor did report seeing smoke coming from the back of the train before it entered the tunnel.

Manfred Mueller, head of the rescue operation, dismissed suggestions that the train may have been carrying flammable substances. “Dangerous substances like diesel would be transported by a special train,” he said.

The Kitzsteinhorn railway, opened in 1974, was initially described as the world’s first underground mountain railway because almost all of it went through the mountain.

It is some 2.5 miles long, rising from the valley which is 984 yards above sea-level to the mountain station at 2,625 yards. The normal journey time is around nine minutes.

National Mourning

Although Austria has seen its fair share of deaths from avalanches and other disasters, this is the worst single accident in the country’s history.

The Austrian government declared a state of official national mourning for two days. Black flags hung from the Vienna State Opera and theatres in the capital and Austrian flags on government buildings flew at half-mast. Also, an official OPEC meeting in Vienna was postponed until Monday out of respect for the tragedy.

Winter sports fans had been drawn to the popular Kaprun area to take advantage of beautiful autumn weather and what were described as perfect conditions for skiing.

Victims would have been hampered in their desperate efforts to flee the blaze by their heavy ski boots and equipment.

At least 33 of the dead are believed to have been local government employees and their families from the town of Wels in Upper Austria. They had gone to Kaprun on an office outing.

ABCNEWS’ Bob Woodruff, ABCNEWS Radio’s Sue Masterman, Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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