Winter has not yet arrived in the rest of Europe, but Austrians like to hit the slopes early. Last Saturday the weather was particularly fine, and the 9 a.m. funicular train to one of the country's most popular high-altitude ski resorts, the Kitzsteinhorn glacier south of Salzburg, was filled to capacity. As many as 180 people, including dozens of youngsters, were in the cable-driven car when it headed into a 3,200 m tunnel burrowed through the side of the mountain. Eight people would make it out alive. Minutes after the car entered the tunnel a fire somehow broke out, apparently in a small compartment at the rear occupied by an attendant. Fed by fresh air sucked into the tunnel, flames and smoke swept through the cabin and up the mountainside, like smoke up a chimney. One of the steel cables hauling the car snapped. As the fire raged, heat and smoke prevented rescuers from reaching the scene. Lift workers at the top of the mountain, more than 2 km away, had to be evacuated because of smoke inhalation, and three people waiting in a passenger area connected to the tunnel also died. Three hours later, all that remained of the train was twisted metal. By late Saturday officials confirmed that at least 150 people had been killed in the car itself. Eight were able to escape, apparently by kicking out a window. It was the deadliest funicular accident — and one of Austria's worst skiing tragedies — ever.
Funicular trains, cable-drawn cars relatively common in Austria and other parts of the Alps, do not ordinarily travel through tunnels. When it was built in 1972, the track at Kitzsteinhorn was considered an engineering marvel, transporting 1,500 people an hour from the valley to the summit. Whether it will ever operate again is unclear.