Disaster in the Alps


Last fall, the worst accident in ski history hit Kaprun, Austria, taking 155 lives.

The fortune-teller was blunt: You will die soon, the mystic told Karin and Hoerst Roessl. So the young couple drew up a will. They hired a band to give a brassy farewell at their funeral. Then, according to the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung,the Roessls decided to cheer up with a day of glacier skiing.

The morning of November 11 was a perfect argument for life — crisp and blue and electric with the excitement of a new ski season — as the couple boarded the cable railway at Kaprun, a resort in western Austria. Fewer than 15 minutes later, the Roessls and 153 others were dead, victims of the most deadly accident in skiing’s history.

At press time, investigators were still uncertain of what, exactly, started the inferno inside the funicular tunnel that burrows up the 3,200-meter Kitzsteinhorn. The underground cable railway — the world’s first when it was built in 1974 — and its brethren are considered Austria’s safest mode of transportation. An interim report leaked to the press suggested that an overheated cog, leaking hydraulic fluid, a short in a battery, or even a malfunction of a heater might have caused the fire. Maintenance may also have played a role. Investigators added that the fire gorged on the plastic driver’s cabin, previously said to be fireproof. In the fire’s wake, funiculars throughout the Alps were immediately examined for defects.

Among those lost to the skiing world, and to the world at large, were 1999 world moguls champion Sandra Schmitt, along with her parents; four members of Austria’s hearing-impaired national ski team; eight Americans, including a family of four; and an Austrian father who had placed his young daughter on the preceding lift and instructed her to wait for him at the top. She waited, but he never arrived.