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11 dead, 2 missing in French avalanche

searcher teams
Rescue teams search through the snow   

Most were teens on school holiday

January 23, 1998
Web posted at: 9:33 p.m. EST (0233 GMT)

GAP, France (CNN) -- Eleven people were killed and two are missing and feared dead after a massive wall of snow crashed down Friday on a group of French teens on a winter hike through the Alps.

According to police, the dead included nine students from a school in Montigny-le-Bretonneaux, near Paris. Two of six adults accompanying the students also died, and seven children and two adults were injured, police said.

Other local officials put the death toll at 10. Ten other children were being kept in area hospitals but were not hurt.

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After more than seven hours of searching, authorities suspended their efforts late Friday night and planned to resume looking for the two missing hikers Saturday. But it was considered unlikely that they could have survived.

At the time of the disaster, members of the group, which included four experienced mountaineers as guides, were snow-shoeing on trails near the ski resort of Les Orres, in southern France close to the Italian border.

Police said the hikers were hit by a fast-moving, 1,000-foot wall of snow, apparently triggered by people skiing further up the mountain outside of authorized runs.

Rescue workers
Rescue workers at the site   

As many as 150 rescue workers rushed to the site in an attempt to rescue the hikers, with the help of helicopters and search dogs. They used long poles and chain saws to search the mountain.

Authorities had issued repeated avalanche warnings this week in the French Alps because of recent heavy snowfall.

"One cannot criticize these people in such a tragic moment, but personally, I wouldn't have gone trekking today in these conditions," said Gerard Bouchet, leader of one of the rescue teams.

Rescue workers carried survivors, bundled in blankets and placed on stretchers, to waiting helicopters, which then flew them to hospitals in the nearby towns of Embrun and Gap.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin traveled to the area late Friday to meet the survivors.

"This catastrophe, which has plunged the St. Francis of Assisi school in Montigny-le-Bretonneux into mourning, has saddened the whole nation," said a statement released by Jospin's office.

President Jacques Chirac expressed his "profound sadness" over one of the worst avalanche disasters in France in recent years.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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