Val Thorens avalanche families long wait for justice

At around 3pm on the 21st of November 1992, an avalanche triggered by a cornice fall in the ski resort of Val-Thorens, hit the open Jean Beranger ski piste. Ten people were buried; only three were dug out alive. Following the incident the resort was accused of doing “too little, too late” in its response and yesterday, after 14 long years, a Lyon court agreed with this view.

The autumn had been unusually wet and there was considerable snow at altitude by the end of November there was 2.5 meters of snow at 2,500 meters altitude. Val Thorens was partially open but visibility was poor and there was little sight of resort personnel beyond the lifties and the repeated “booms” of avalanche control work going on above.

The alert was given by two members of the piste patrol who were 200 meters above the slide near the Geliot snow making plant. At the time only around 30% of the total number of piste patrollers were on duty, around 15 to 18 pisteurs on the terrain or able to be summoned by radio or telephone. However there were also around a dozen ski instructors and the same number of piste-basher drivers and lift workers. In total around 50 people complemented by units of the CRS, dog handlers and volunteers. However a police inquiry said that the resort had tried to minimize the scale of the incident at first and did not immediately deploy all available personnel.

In total 150 people including volunteers and two avalanche dogs assisted in the rescue efforts in fading light and worsening weather conditions. The first three victims, all lightly injured, were rapidly located and dug out. Then two bodies and finally the five remaining skiers. The victims included British nationals Olivier Pons, Roderik Arkell, Christopher Maxwell and Australian Piers Kiteley who were studying at Lyon, as well as two Dutch tourists and their twelve year old son.

Recriminations flew in the aftermath of the avalanche. Were there enough personnel? Why was the run open in such poor conditions? François Gros, the director of Tourism at the time commented that “we cannot close the resort the second the weather turns a bit poor”.

On the day of the avalanche the Gaz-Ex system in couloir 82, the only one mentioned in the avalanche control plan (PIDA), was fired before the piste was opened but without result. The Gaz-ex system had been installed after an earlier avalanche in 1989. This couloir was adjacent to the one where the avalanche occurred. Following the incident the Gaz-ex system was extended to the other couloirs.

An inquiry by the Gendarmerie did not find fault with either the mayor or the ski run director or his staff. The public prosecutor dropped the case but things did not end there. The families of the victims decided to proceed with a civil action for manslaughter. In March 2000 the Chambéry appeal court decided that their was no case to answer.

14 years later and that fateful Saturday is but a distant memory except for the French judicial system. Yesterday Lyon administrative appeal court found Saint Martin de Belleville, in whose territory Val Thorens lies, responsible for the incident and has ordered the commune to pay compensation to the families of 4 of the victims totaling 257,500 € . Quite a substantial sum for French courts. The decision overturns an earlier judgment by Grenoble administrative court and baring an appeal by the commune to the French High Court should close this long running and tragic story.

Posted by on Thursday, 13 July, 2006 at 11:19 AM

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