November 11

This Day in History

Disaster

Nov 11, 2000:

Skiers die in cable-car fire

A cable car taking skiers to a glacier in Austria catches fire on this day in 2000 as it passes through a mountain tunnel; 156 people die. Only 11 people managed to survive the fire, which was caused by an illegal space heater.

Kitzsteinhorn Mountain in the Austrian Alps is a popular skiing and snowboarding destination located just south of Salzburg. In order to reach the mountain's prime skiing locations, it is necessary to take a cable car from the town of Kaprun into the mountains and through a 2.5-mile tunnel. The 90-foot-long car is pulled by a cable along train-like tracks.

On the morning of November 11, the car left at 9 a.m. for its journey up the mountain; within two minutes, flames were spotted shooting from the car. The cable car had just entered the concrete shaft tunnel when a disruption indicator, part of the car's safety system, automatically stopped it. Quickly, the tunnel filled with toxic smoke, but the doors wouldn't open. In the back of the car, a man smashed the rear window Plexiglas and 11 people were able to crawl out the back to a stairway that led several hundred yards down to the entrance.

The other passengers were not so fortunate. Although some passengers were able to make it out of the front of the car and attempted to climb to the top of the tunnel, the tunnel acted as a chimney sending flames and smoke straight up. In fact, the driver of the corresponding car coming down the tunnel was burned near the exit at the top. Three other people who were near the top of the tunnel also burned to death.

The fire burned all day, as it was not until that evening that workers could get to the train. Once there, they encountered bodies that were burned and charred beyond recognition. One worker later said "I don't want to describe it for the sake of the families." An inquiry into the fire's cause revealed that a space heater in the driver's cabin had caused the hydraulic oil in a pipe to overheat and leak on to a plastic seat, where it ignited.

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