At least seven die as snow cuts off 20,000

 

An avalanche smashed through the centre of an Austrian ski resort yesterday, killing at least seven people, and rescuers were searching overnight for dozens more trapped under the snow.

Around 20,000 tourists have been stranded in their resorts since last Wednesday.

By late yesterday 37 people had been pulled out of the snow, including the seven dead, according to rescue officials. Thirteen were pulled out in critical condition from the avalanche in the Tyrolean ski resort of Galtuer, which could turn out to be the country's worst Alpine disaster in 45 years.

The village, which has no hospital, is completely cut off by the bad weather. According to the APA news agency it has only one doctor.

There were conflicting reports of how many people were missing. An army spokesman put the figure at up to 55, but the national news agency, APA, quoted the avalanche warning service in Innsbruck as saying around 25 people were still buried. Rescue operations were being hampered by heavy snowfall, with helicopters unable to fly in or out, an army spokesman said.

The avalanche thundered through the heart of the small resort demolishing four houses.

In a separate incident in the Salzburg ski resort of Sportgastein, a German woman was killed when an avalanche engulfed the house she was staying in.

Elsewhere in Europe, the death toll from two simultaneous avalanches in the Swiss Alps rose to three yesterday and seven people were still reported missing, with their chances of survival rated as slim.

An avalanche in the Italian Alps near the French border killed one woman and injured three other local people, rescuers said.

Popular Tyrolean and Vorarlberg resorts such as St Anton, Lech, Zuers and Stuben - the winter playground of the Germans - were also cut off from the outside world after the heaviest snowfall in decades.

The Austrian motoring association, OAMTC, said it could not gauge how much snow had fallen over the last week as snow density markers had been buried. Around 40 cm (16 inches) of snow fell overnight. "It will be two or three days before we see the situation ease," an OAMTC spokesman said.

The numerous avalanches in the worst-hit provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg claimed their first deaths on Monday when a man and woman were swept under as a snow sheet ripped through a mountain restaurant in the resort of Gargellen.

After a 10-hour search, rescuers found the woman dead and the man seriously injured in the wrecked building. He died early yesterday after rescuers failed to airlift him.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said last night that it was believed no Irish holidaymakers were among the missing after the avalanche in Galtuer. A spokesman for the British travel agency Inghams, which runs ski charters from its Irish branch, said 54 of its holidaymakers were stranded at Lech. However he did not have information as to whether any of those were Irish holidaymakers.