Austria Probing Avalanche Deaths


Innsbruck, Austria Dec. 30 (AP)–An Austrian prosecutor launched a preliminary investigation Thursday to determine whether three mountain guides were responsible for the deaths of nine German tourists buried in an avalanche near the village of Galtuer.

The victims were among about 40 members of the German Alpine Society who had planned to celebrate the new millennium at a remote hostel 6,600 feet up in the western Austrian Alps, 300 miles southwest of Vienna.

A landslide, however, buried 13 of the tourists Tuesday during heavy snows brought by the second major storm to sweep across Europe in a week. Six men and three women were killed.

Robert Wallner, the prosecutor for Tyrol state, told the Austria Press Agency that his investigation would focus on three Austrian mountain guides who were accompanying the 13 German tourists when the avalanche struck.

Wallner said he would decide in two to three months whether to launch a formal investigation. Under Austrian law, the formal investigation could lead to the arrest and trial of the three guides.

Local officials had issued avalanche warnings in the area on Monday, the day before the snowslide. Wallner said the three guides,who were not identified, had been cooperating with his inquiry.

On Wednesday, a rescue helicopter evacuated about 40 people, including tourists, guides and hostel staff, from the site, along withthe bodies of the nine victims. All were said to have been experienced mountaineers and skiers.

One 30-year-old German woman was hospitalized, but doctors said they expected to release her within a couple of days.

In an interview with APA, one of the survivors, Frauke Brunner, said some of the victims were killed after the avalanche “catapulted” them “against a cliff.” Brunner said she managed to survive in a small air pocket.

“I then lost consciousness and regained it only after noticing the rescuers poking into the snow,” she said.

The avalanche occurred near the site where 38 people were killed by massive avalanches in February.

Stefan Beulke, a senior official of the German Alpine Society, defended the guides.

“They are not chance-takers but professionals,” he said. Beulke said weather conditions were good at the start of the day before worsening dramatically shortly before the avalanche.

Heavy snowfalls across the Ukraine, meanwhile, have raised the risk of avalanches in the former Soviet republic. Passes in the Carpathian Mountains and in the Crimean Mountains were, however, open on Thursday, emergency officials said.

Electricity breakdowns were reported across the Ukraine, while the snow caused traffic jams in many cities and disrupted train schedules. Fourteen of Ukraine’s 20 airports were temporarily shut down Thursday because of the harsh weather.

Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press