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Avalanche buries homes in Austria

A massive avalanche in the Austrian Alps buries homes and kills 13 people in Valzur on this day in 1999. The avalanche came only one day after an avalanche in the neighboring village of Galtur killed 25 people.

The winter of 1998-99 featured continuously heavy snow in much of Austria, as well as in Switzerland and the French Alps. On February 17, dry, light snow came down across the region. This was followed a couple of days later by warmer temperatures and heavy wet snow and rain in some locations, creating ripe avalanche conditions. In addition, gale force winds left the tops of the mountain peaks bare and forced the snow onto overloaded sheltered slopes.

Many towns and villages issued avalanche warnings. Monaco’s Princess Caroline, who was staying in Lech, Austria, was evacuated along with 100 others as a precaution. The Chamonix Valley in France was closed on February 22, and that same day, 10 people died in an avalanche in Valais, Switzerland. In the Paznaum Valley of western Austria, the resorts stayed open, though most of the regular ski trails were closed temporarily.

On February 23, people had gathered for a ski race through the town of Galtur, when an avalanche came roaring down through the town at 180 miles per hour. Dozens of homes and chalets were buried by up to 45 feet of snow and ice. The following day, as Austrian soldiers arrived to help with the relief and rescue effort, the neighboring village of Valzur was hit by its own 600-foot-wide avalanche. Very few people were pulled out alive from the snow and ice, though one four-year-old boy, Alexander Walter, did recover after spending two hours covered by snow.

The death toll of 38 in Galtur and Valzur was the worst in Austria since 54 died at Blons in 1954. Prime Minister Viktor Klima declared February 28 a national day of mourning. In the aftermath, critics blamed the tourism industry for not being more proactive in warning of the danger. Officials may have discounted the risk because such avalanches were virtually unprecedented in the area.

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