16 people begin trial in Salzburg today for the Kaprun tunnel fire which killed 155 people in November 2000 on the Kitzsteinhorn funicular.
The accused are employees of the ski lift company, the builders and the Austrian Ministry of Transport. They are charged with negligence that lead to a fire. They risk between 6 months and 5 years in prison. In total 92 Austrians, 37 Germans, 10 Japonese, 8 Americans, 4 Slovenians, 2 Dutch, 1 British and a Czeck died in the catastrophy. The worst in Austria since WWII.
“I hope that the accused will shed as many tears as us” - declared Johannes Steildorf, a lawyer whos 18 year old son, Mattheus died in the inferno that was created in the tunnel that leads to the Kitzsteinhorn glacier. “For me, the point of the trial is that this shouldn’t ever happen again”, added Heidi Kirnbauer who lost her 17 year old son in the blaze.
On the morning of the 11 November 2000, hundreds of skiers were heading for the pistes in a popular ski area 350 km to the west of Vienna. Those who took the funicular railway were largely young snow boarders competing in an event.
In the train the passengers noticed smoke just after the departure. A radiator at the back of the train had lit the brake oil in a flexible hydraulic hose. The system lost brake pressure which set off emergency brakes that blocked the train in the tunnel. The tunnel was not lit and was equipped with only a narrow service staircase. The doors and windows of the train couldn’t be opened from inside by the passengers. At the back the passengers managed to break the plexiglas windows and escaped by climbing down the tunnel. The others who tried to climb up the tunnel and away from the fire were rapidly overcome by the toxic fumes.
The inquiry found that all the victims suffocated and drew attention to the ‘chimney’ configuration of the tunnel where both ends were left open despite fire doors.
On the bench are the employees of the Gletscherbahnen Kaprun, Swobada the firm who installed the radiator without respecting the installation conditions, Rexroth who built the hydraulic brake system and ATS who built the fire doors in the tunnel which didn’t work.
“This process doesn’t do anything for my clients”, stated the American lawyer Ed Fagan who is working for many of the families of the victims. “The accused are not the real people responsible, it is their bosses who should be here”. Fagan is suing the companies in the American courts.
The trial is taking place in a court that can exceptionally accommodate 365 people with retransmission on a tv screen for the families.