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Austria ski tunnel fire case opens

Victims' coffins
The Kaprun funicular rail blaze clamed the lives of 155 people from around the world  

VIENNA, Austria -- Sixteen people have gone on trial in connection with a ski train inferno in Kaprun which killed 155 people in Austria's worst peace-time disaster.

The ski resort workers and inspectors are charged with being responsible for the November 2000 blaze which left dead German, Japanese, American and Austrian nationals who had been travelling in a funicular train on its route up the Kitzsteinhorn mountain, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Salzburg. (Full Story)

Only 12 people survived the poisonous fumes and fierce flames of the blaze after they smashed windows with their skiing equipment on the stalled train trapped in the 3.2 kilometre-long tunnel.

Three died after becoming suffocated at the ski train's terminus as poisonous gases seeped through from the tunnel.

On trial in Salzburg, Austria, are employees of the funicular railway company, Gletscherbahnen Kaprun AG, three transport ministry officials in charge of inspecting the train and tunnel equipment, and various engineers and technical experts.

Thirteen of the defendants are charged with negligence leading to the outbreak of the fire, and three are charged with negligent endangerment of public safety.

The trial, which began on Tuesday, is expected to last until September.

Investigators have traced the fire to a defective heater in the driver's cabin and overheated oil.

Prosecutors will question who was responsible for installing and servicing the non-regulation heater.

They will also probe why the train's doors could not be opened from inside, forcing passengers to use their ski equipment to smash their way out.

No fire protection measures in either the train or the tunnel were available and the door from the tunnel to the summit station did not close.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty. They face up to five years in jail if convicted.

The case was moved from Salzburg's District Court to a larger building to handle crowds of relatives, lawyers and journalists.


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