Kaprun disaster

The Kaprun disaster was a fire that occurred in an ascending train in the tunnel of the Gletscherbahn Kaprun 2 funicular in Kaprun, Austria on 11 November 2000. The disaster killed 155 people (150 on the ascending train, 2 on the descending train and 3 in the mountain station). There were 12 survivors (10 Germans and two Austrians) from the burning ascending train. Most of the victims were skiers on their way to the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier.

The train

The Gletscherbahn Kaprun 2 was a funicular railway running from Kaprun to the Kitzsteinhorn, opened in 1974. In 1993, it was modernized, giving the trains a sleek, futuristic look; also making them the pride of Austria's ski resorts. This railway had the unusual track gauge of 946 mm (3 ft 1 14 in) and a length of 3,900 metres (12,800 ft), with 3,300 metres (10,800 ft) of track inside a tunnel. The train climbed and descended the tunnel at 25 km/h, angled at 30 degrees. There were two carriages on a single track, with a section allowing them to pass each other halfway. One carried passengers up the mountain while its twin simultaneously descended. The tunnel terminated at the main reception centre, called the Alpincenter, where a powerful motorized winch system pulled the wagons. There were neither engines, fuel tanks, nor drivers, only low-voltage electrical systems, 160-litre hydraulic tanks (used for the brake system) and an attendant who operated the hydraulic doors. Each train had four passenger compartments and a cab at front and rear for the attendant, who switched back and forth as they travelled up and down. It could carry up to 180 passengers.

The disaster

On 11 November 2000, 161 passengers and one conductor boarded the funicular train for an early morning trip to the slopes. Prior to the passenger train leaving the lower terminus shortly after 9:00 am, the electric fan heater in the unattended cabin at the lower end of the train caught fire, due to a design fault that caused the unit to overheat. The fire melted through plastic pipes carrying flammable hydraulic fluid from the brake system, resulting in the loss of fluid pressure which caused the train to halt unexpectedly 600 metres into the tunnel (this was a standard safety feature).[1] Several minutes later, the train conductor, who was in the cabin at the upper end of the train (which was the front, since the train was ascending), realized that a fire had broken out, reported it to the control centre, and attempted to open the hydraulically-operated doors, but the system pressure loss prevented them from operating. The train conductor then lost contact with the control centre, because the fire had burned through a 16kV power cable running alongside the length of the track, causing a total blackout throughout the entire ski resort.

The passengers, by this stage aware of the fire and unable to exit through the doors, attempted to break the shatter-resistant acrylic windows in order to escape. Twelve people from the rear of the train, who successfully broke a window with a ski pole, followed the advice of another escapee who had been a volunteer firefighter for 20 years, and escaped downwards past the fire and below the smoke.

Many of the still-trapped occupants had by now lost consciousness due to toxic fumes. Eventually, the conductor was able to unlock the doors, allowing them to be manually forced open by the remaining conscious passengers who spilled out into the tunnel and fled upwards and away from the fire. The tunnel acted like a giant blast furnace, sucking oxygen in from the bottom and rapidly sent the poisonous smoke, heat and the fire itself billowing upwards. All the passengers ascending on foot, as well as the train conductor, were asphyxiated by the smoke and then burned by the raging fire.

The conductor and the sole passenger on the railway's second train, which was descending the mountain in the same tunnel from above the burning carriage, also died of smoke inhalation. The smoke continued to rise up the tunnel, reaching the Alpine Centre located at the top end of the track 2,500 m (8,200 ft) away. Two fleeing workers in the Alpine Centre, upon seeing the smoke, alerted employees and customers and escaped via an emergency exit. They made the mistake of leaving the exit doors open, a factor which increased the chimney effect within the tunnel, by allowing air to escape upwards more quickly and further intensifying the fire. Meanwhile, the centre was filled with smoke and all except four people escaped from the centre. Firefighters reached the centre and saved one of the four, while the other three were asphyxiated.[1]

Investigation

Nearly one year after the fire, the official inquiry determined the cause was the failure, overheating and ignition of one of the fan heaters installed in the conductor's compartments that were not designed for use in a moving vehicle, much less a train. The ignition was caused when a design fault caused the unit to overheat, which in turn caused the plastic mount for the heating element to break off, causing the element to jam against its plastic casing and catch fire. A slow leak of highly flammable hydraulic oil was ignited by the burning, melting heater, which in turn melted the plastic fluid lines, further feeding the flames and also resulting in the hydraulic pressure loss which caused the train to stop and the doors to fail.

The structural flaws of the funicular trains, especially the lack of safety mechanisms, were found to have played a role in the tragedy. Each funicular unit had its fire extinguishers out of the passengers' reach in the sealed attendants' compartments. No smoke detectors were installed. There was no cellphone reception within the tunnels, which meant that passengers had no method of contacting the attendant. Professor Joseph Nejez, a funicular train expert, said that the designers throughout the years had a perception that a fire could not occur since no fire had occurred in a funicular cabin prior to the Kaprun disaster. The train complied with area safety codes, which did not address the systems installed on the train during its 1993 upgrade. The onboard electric power, hydraulic braking systems, and fan heaters intended for use in homes instead of trains increased the likelihood of fire.[2]

155: Criminal Case Kaprun

The official cause of the fire, a faulty heater, is widely rejected by the Austrian and German public, where most of the victims were from. There are several dubious coincidences concerning the trial and the way the survey reports were made. Investigations from German authorities which were done after the trial showed that hydraulic oil from the trains hydraulic lines dropped onto the hobby heaters which were installed in both trains.[3]

In 2014, 14 years after the disaster, a federal prosecutor who played a leading role in the trial, Dr. Eva-Danninger Soriat, assisted two journalists in researching and publishing a German-language book titled 155: Criminal Case Kaprun. One author was Hannes Uhl, a journalist who grew up in Piesendorf, near Kaprun, and who personally knew some of the victims. The second author was German journalist Hubert Godeysen, who reported about the catastrophe for Die Zeit newspaper. The book exposed details about the legal proceedings, the preparation of the expert opinions, and private connections of the persons involved in the process.

The documents from the published book, for example, show that the original Austrian forensic expert, Anton Muhr, was bullied during the trial even by some of his fellow forensic experts, until he was finally discharged from the court and had entered psychiatric treatment for severe depression. After his discharge, he was replaced by several other experts who then disclaimed Mr. Muhr's conclusions about the cause of the fire and changed the official cause completely, giving much more favorable treatment to the accused persons and much less favorable treatment to the German producer of the hobby fan heater, despite the fact that this model of heater should never have been installed at all since it was only a device for private in-home use. It was also shown that forensic experts and staff members from the Gletscherbahnen had lied to the court when they denied that they had seen any hydraulic oil inside the other fan heater from the second train which had survived the fire, most likely in order to relieve the Gletscherbahnen of culpability. After the trial, when talking to German prosecution in a separate investigation, staff members from the Gletscherbahnen, including a workshop electrician named A. Kellner and also forensic experts like U. Geishofer, admitted that they had indeed seen oil inside the recovered heater from the other train as well as discharged expert Muhr who claimed to have seen the oil from the beginning.[4][5]

Muhr claimed that the Fakir fan heater was improperly installed by the Swoboda company and that the hydraulic lines, which were installed by the German company Mannesmann-Rexroth, caused the fire when they leaked oil because they were installed right next to the heater, which is a matter of gross negligence. At the trial, the defence always claimed that the disassembly, modification, and installation of the hobby heater was totally fine and that neither the Gletscherbahnen nor Swoboda company had done anything wrong at all, while the original packaging and the instruction from the hobby heater manual clearly stated that the heater must not be disassembled since all safety features would be voided, as would the warranty.

During the journalists' investigation, it was revealed that critical evidence had been tampered with before the trial. Specifically, the fan heater, after being secured from the site, had illegal modifications made by Swoboda during the installation in the 1990's removed in order to cover up the problematic work.

The published information from the book found that a team of crime scene specialists from Vienna, the so-called KTZ from the interior ministry, did not hand over critical evidence to the original forensic expert, Muhr, when he requested it from them and that they even refused to work with him at the site in Kaprun and also in later events.

The book also includes information about a celebration which happened right after the discharge of all accused persons at a local inn in Salzburg, which is known to have been attended by several forensic experts who argued in favour of the Gletscherbahnen. The judge, Manfred Seiss, attended the victory celebration, which, in the authors' view, calls into question the judge's impartiality in the matter.

Casualties and aftermath

CountryDead
Austria92
Germany37
Japan10
United States8
Slovenia4
Netherlands2
United Kingdom1
Czech Republic1
155[6]

The funicular was never reopened after the disaster and was replaced by a gondola lift, a 24-person Gletscherjet 1 funitel. The stations were abandoned and the tunnel sealed, and it remains unused today. The site though, has been frequented by some skiers who wanted to explore its dark interiors and filming the remains of the burned tunnel.

The track and tunnel remained in place for over a decade after the disaster, although never used by paying passengers. As of 2014, the track and supporting structure below the tunnel has been completely removed, with just a gap in the trees to indicate where it stood. Skiers and sightseers now reach the Alpincentre using either the Gletscherjet 1 or Panaromabahn cable cars to an intermediate station, followed by the Gletscherjet 2 cable car or Langwiedbahn chairlift to the Alpincentre (typically only one of each operates in the summer period, when there is less traffic), though they can also still use the original Gletscherbahn 1.

On 19 February 2004, Judge Manfred Seiss acquitted all 16 suspects, including company officials, technicians, and government inspectors, clearing them of criminal negligence. Seiss said there was insufficient evidence to find the suspects responsible for the conditions that led to the blaze. In September 2007, the public prosecutor's office determined the manufacturer of the electric heater was not responsible.[7]

One of the victims was Sandra Schmitt, a 19-year-old German freestyle skier who at the time was the reigning Women's Dual Moguls World Champion.[8] Josef Schaupper, a seven-time Deaflympic medalist, was also killed in the fatal accident along with his fellow deaf skiers.[9][10] Another was United States Army Major Michael Goodridge with his wife and two sons.[11]

Memorial

On November 11, 2004, a memorial to the victims was officially inaugurated. The elongated blocks of exposed concrete and glass steles are located opposite the valley station of the Gletscherbahnen.

The difference in color of the glass strips should symbolize every individual human being. The individual glass slits are each dedicated to a specific person. Each slit of light stands as a symbol for a life.[12]

Names of the victims

Christian Aigner, 27

Manfred Aigner, 27

Carrie Baker, 23

Johann Bratori, 39

Bianka Bieber, 22

Hannes Blaimauer, 32

Roman Böhm, 36

Gudrun Bruckmair, 40

Kevin Challis, 40

Jakob Decker, 34

Okihiko Deguchi, 42

Nao Deguchi, 13

Johann Demmelbauer, 49

Christopher Denk, 7

Franz Denk, 33

Josef Dorner, 43

Alfred Eidenberger, 68

Alexander Eismann, 21

Bettina Emrich, 34

Petra Falk, 25

Christian Fellner, 29

Rastko Ferk, 26

Franz-Leopold Ferstl, 50

Gabriele Fiedler, 35

Heinrich Fiedler, 37

Benjamin Filkil, 15

Paul Filkil, 46

Markus Fink, 23

Ingeborg Fördermayr, 53

Christian Franz, 36

Helmut Freilinger, 62

Erika Friedl, 61

Primoz Galjot, 33

Rok Galjot, 32

Sebastian Geiger, 14

Michael Goodridge, 7

Kyle Goodridge, 5

Michael Goodridge, 36

Jennifer Goodridge, 35

Markus Graßler, 21

Barbara Guggenbichler, 13

Sonja Hager, 22

Heinz Hallwirth, 44

Jens Heukerroth, 36

Markus Hirtl, 16

Daniel Hochreiter, 13

Christian Hulka, 32

Josef Humer, 46

Nina Humer, 21

Karl Huttegger, 24

Elke Innerhuber, 59

Ernst Jenewein, 37

Judith Jindra, 19

Herbert Kaar, 38

Stefan Kaippel, 18

Ayaka Katoono, 14

Wolfgang Käufl, 41

Erich Kern, 25

Kurt Kiemeswenger, 35

Petra Kiemeswenger, 33

Ursula Kipper, 44

Matthias Kirnbauer, 17

Martin Klapper, 35

Maximilian Klapper, 5

Patrick Klapper, 15

Horst Konrad, 29

Karin Konrad, 29

Gerhard Lausch, 38

Roman Leitner, 27

Katja Levart, 23

Robert Lindner, 20

Clemens Lueger, 15

Paul Lueger, 17

Franz Lueger, 43

Andreas Maier, 17

Claudia Maijer, 22

Barbara Mayerhofer, 16

Karl Mayerhofer, 37

Sandra Mayr, 22

Ilona Mensikova, 20

Rudolf Mihailovic, 37

Peter Mildner, 40

Gabriele Mildner, 39

Saori Mitsumoto, 22

Peter Mitterberger, 33

Stefan Mohr, 17

Sandra Mülleder, 17

Johann Mülleder, 42

Patrick Mülleder, 9

Ryoko Narahara, 22

Rudolf Neumair, 8

Maria Neumann, 58

Wolfgang Neumann, 59

Martin Niederberger, 24

Ingrid Novak, 46

Karl Heinz Novak, 52

Tobias Ohner, 18

Masanobu Onodera, 14

Hirokazu Oyama, 24

Cornelia Papouschek, 36

Otto Johann Parobek, 34

Radomir Pavlovic, 22

Christian Petermandl, 41

Brigitte Plössner, 42

Günther Plössner, 47

Josef Ponzer, 59

Martin Prohaczka, 25

Andreas Putschögl, 19

Kurt Rehak, 70

Harald Matthias Reiser, 13

Martin Riha, 27

Massimo Danilo Stelio Roiatti, 13

Maki Sakakibara, 25

Stefan Sakrausky, 18

Gerald Sandmayr, 34

Britta Sandmayr, 34

Tomohisa Saze, 14

Dietmar Scharwitzl, 21

Josef Schaupper, 37

Dieter Hubert Schmid, 32

Manfred Schmitt, 46

Marianne Schmitt, 45

Sandra Schmitt, 19

Manfred Schönhuber, 43

Thomas Schönl, 33

Siegfried Schwabl, 26

Nikodemus Seilern-Moy, 15

Patrik Sieger, 24

Andrea Singer, 28

Patrik Smejda, 23

Alexander Smrcek, 28

Katrin Specht, 17

Barry Stadmann, 26

Lorenz Stangl, 21

Michael Steffo, 28

Roswitha Steiner, 59

Florian Steinl, 22

Matthäus Stieldorf, 18

Sebastian Stöckl, 31

Hilde Christa Strasser, 57

Helmut Strasser, 59

Jens Verhorst, 24

Gerald Voithofer, 14

Hildegard Wagner, 34

Tomoko Wakui, 14

Arthur Warias, 26

Franz Weber-Unger, 18

Anita Wiesnet, 25

Simone Wildenauer, 23

Daniel Wilhelm, 20

Willi Wurzinger, 39

Hermann Wurzinger, 41

Ernst Zauner, 43

Josef Zeilinger, 60

Ingeborg Zeilinger, 60[13][14]

References

  1. Dahlkamp, Jürgen; Ludwig, Udo (9 November 2011). "KATASTROPHEN: Freispruch für Gott". www.spiegel.de (in German) (49/2009 ed.). SPIEGEL-Verlag Rudolf Augstein GmbH & Co. pp. 46–51. ISSN 0038-7452. Archived from the original on 12 December 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2017.
  2. "Fire on the Ski Slope." "Seconds From Disaster".
  3. Staatsanwaltschaft Heilbronn: Ermittlungsverfahren der Staatsanwaltschaft Heilbronn, Az: 21Js27386/05. Stuttgart: LPD Stuttgart. 2007. p. 54.
  4. Vernehmung Geishofer. Landesgericht Graz. 2006. p. 4.
  5. Staatsanwaltschaft Heilbronn: Ermittlungsverfahren der Staatsanwaltschaft Heilbronn, Az: 21Js27386/05. Stuttgart: LPD Stuttgart. 2007. pp. 42, 43, 48, 52.
  6. "Flashback: Kaprun ski train fire". BBC News. 19 February 2004. Archived from the original on 22 January 2009. Retrieved 14 April 2009.
  7. Zeilinger, Lilli (17 February 2014). "Kaprun-Katastrophe: Ex-Anklägerin bricht das Schweigen nach Urteil" (in German). salzburg24. Retrieved 29 November 2018.
  8. "Obituary – Sandra Schmitt". The Guardian. 17 November 2000. Archived from the original on 24 June 2012. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  9. "Cable Train Fire in Austria". ABC News. 6 January 2006. Retrieved 30 January 2018.
  10. Godeysen, Hubertus; Uhl, Hannes (2014). 155: Kriminalfall Kaprun (in German). Editions A Verlag. p. 192. ISBN 978-3-990-01092-1.
  11. Seconds From Disaster - Fire On The Ski Slope, National Geographic Channel
  12. "am-plan : Projekte : Ideenfindung Gedenkstätte Kaprun". am-plan.de. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  13. http://www.hufu.at/arthur.warias/jan02_01.htm
  14. Hubertus Godeysen, Hannes Uhl, 155 Kriminalfall Kaprun (in German), editon a, ISBN 978-3990010761

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