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Frigid conditions grip Europe; death toll rises

Even zoo penguins need protection from cold

January 3, 1997
Web posted at: 12:50 p.m. EST (1750 GMT)

PARIS (CNN) -- More than 12,000 travelers were stranded in France's Rhone River valley Friday after frigid weather glazed railways and roads with ice and stopped trains in their tracks. And across Europe, major rivers and large ports turned to ice as the blistering cold strangled much of the region for the 11th consecutive day.

More than 200 deaths from Spain to Russia have been blamed on the freezing conditions, Europe's coldest weather in about 30 years. Most who have died were elderly, poor or homeless. In Romania, a mortuary overflowed with dead bodies because gravediggers were having trouble breaking the frozen ground.

Forecasters predict the bitter cold temperatures to carry on well into the weekend.

Meanwhile, shipping lines have come to a halt. The Danube River remained closed Friday from Germany through Austria to Slovakia, and barges were stuck throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany as operators waited for ice breakers to free their vessels. Canals and tributaries of the Rhine were sheets of ice.

In England, parts of the Thames froze for the first time since the end of World War II. Oddsmaker William Hill said people were placing bets on whether the river would freeze over in central London.

The Paris daily Le Parisien said Friday that at least 206 had died since the cold wave began. In Romania alone, at least 43 have died as a result of the freeze. In Spain, four people were killed when a bus slid off a snow-covered road and overturned.

Too cold for penguins

In the Netherlands, even the penguins couldn't bear the cold. An Amsterdam zoo moved the young penguins out of the 14 degree Fahrenheit (minus 10 C) weather and into a cooler where the temperature can be kept at a constant 41 F (5 C).

It was even colder in Eastern Europe, and in Germany, where the weather has been blamed for at least 20 deaths. The mercury fell to a minus 15 F (minus 26.3 C) in Gardelegen earlier this week, the coldest in 26 years.

Police in Darmstadt said a 34-year-old man wanted for months on fraud charges turned himself in at a local police station late Thursday, apparently to get out of the cold and into a warm jail cell.

Stranded in France

Snow and ice in France stranded about 12,000 rail and road travelers overnight, forcing them to camp in trains, cars or emergency shelters.

In the French Alps north of Nice, heavy rain dislodged a 220-pound (100-kilo) rock that fell on a car, crushing to death a 23-year-old woman as her parents watched in horror from a trailing car. The accident, which happened Wednesday night, was disclosed by officials Friday.

Not far from there, 250 holiday skiers have been cut off since Thursday afternoon by an avalanche that forced them to take refuge in a nearby ranger station.

But the big chill was cause for celebration in the Netherlands. The nation on Saturday will host the Eleven Towns Tour skating race for the first time since 1986. About 16,000 skaters are expected to take part in the 125-mile (200-km) race, zipping along the nation's vast network of canals. More than a million shivering spectators are expected to turn out.

Meanwhile, in Sicily, people were basking in spring-like sunshine and 61 F (16 C) temperatures.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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