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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 claimed the lives of 155 people, leaving 12 survivors (10 Germans and two Austrians) from the burning train. The victims were skiers on their way to the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier.
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 1⁄4 in) and a length of 3,900 metres (12,800 ft), having 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-liter hydraulic tanks (used for the braking 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 unit had its fire extinguishers out of the passengers' reach in the sealed attendants' compartments. No smoke detectors existed on board. The 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.
The track and tunnel remained in place for over a decade after the disaster, although never used by paying passengers. As of 2015, 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 Alpincenter 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 Alpincenter (typically only one of each operates in the summer period, when there is less traffic).
On 11 November 2000, 167 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 over-heat. The fire melted through plastic pipes carrying flammable hydraulic fluid from the braking system, resulting in the loss of fluid pressure which caused the train to halt unexpectedly 600 meters into the tunnel (this was a standard safety feature). 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 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 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 smash the break-resistant acrylic glass windows in order to escape. 12 people from the rear of the train who successfully broke a window followed the advice of another escapee who had been a volunteer fire fighter 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 kept ascending 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 mistakenly left 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 the centre. Firefighters reached the centre and saved one of the four, while the other three were asphyxiated.
The twelve survivors of the disaster were the passengers who travelled downhill past the fire at the rear of the train, escaping the upward-rising toxic fumes and smoke.
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. The ignition was caused when a design fault caused the unit to over-heat, which in turn caused the plastic mount for the heater element to break off, leading 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.
Casualties and aftermath
The funicular was never re-opened 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 victims of the disaster included:
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On 19 February 2004, Judge Manfred Seiss acquitted all 16 suspects – including company officials, technicians and government inspectors – clearing them of criminal negligence. Judge Seiss said there was insufficient evidence to find the suspects responsible for the conditions that led to the blaze. On 25 September 2007, the public prosecutor's office in Heilbronn determined that the manufacturer of the electric heater was not responsible.
- "Fire on the Ski Slope." "Seconds From Disaster".
- "Flashback: Kaprun ski train fire". BBC News. 19 February 2004. Archived from the original on 7 December 2013. Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- "Obituary – Sandra Schmitt". The Guardian. 17 November 2000. Archived from the original on 24 June 2012. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
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- "Flashback: Kaprun ski train fire." BBC. Thursday, 19 February, 2004.
- "Alpine inferno suspects acquitted." CNN. Thursday, February 19, 2004.