Update, Vienna: Leaking Lubricant (may have) Caused Cable Car Inferno

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Saturday, November 18, 2000

Lubricant cause of Austrian cable car inferno By GEORGE JAHN-- The Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- Leaking lubricant, set ablaze by flames or intense heat, caused the cable-car fire that killed 155 people in an Alpine tunnel, a newsmagazine reported Saturday.

But investigators, who the day before had suggested that a study of lubricant found at the site had been inconclusive, called the report speculation, saying causes of the fire remain unknown.

Germany's Focus newsmagazine said it learned that more than 13 gallons of the flammable liquid had flowed from one of the two driver's compartments at each end of the funicular train, likely released from leaking pipes. The suspected causes for the leaks were a defective wheel or blocked brakes, the magazine said, and then likely heat or sparks on the tracks ignited the oil.

Officials declined Saturday to comment directly on the Focus report.

"We can't say anything at all," said Harald Hofmann, spokesman for the gendarmerie in Salzburg province, the site of the tragedy. "Everything else is speculation."

Police in Austria have said they were analyzing a lubricant found on the railway leading to the tunnel to see if might have played a role in the blaze. But they said late Friday that examination of the substance, used to lubricate cables and ball bearings in the cable car system, had yielded no special clues.

A safety expert also told Focus that last weekend's fire may have spread more quickly because of small gas devices carried by skiers and snowboarders to heat wax before they head out on the slopes.

Those killed in the accident last Saturday near the Alpine village of Kaprun south of Salzburg included 92 Austrians; 37 Germans; 10 Japanese; eight Americans; four Slovenes; two Dutch, one Briton and one Czech.

Austrians on Saturday continued to grapple with the tragedy -- the worst ever involving winter holidayers.

In the town of Wels in Upper Austria province, thousands, including weeping relatives of some who died, gathered in a sports hall for a church ceremony to say goodbye to victims from the region.

Among the dead last Saturday were 44 snowboarders and skiers from Upper Austria province, including 32 from Wels.

Mourners in the Wels sports hall lit 44 candles on a stage covered with black cloth. Many of the relatives wept, and some had to leave because they could not control their emotions.

Repeating the theme of a memorial Mass for all the victims held in Salzburg a day earlier, Roman Catholic Bishop Maximilian Aichern said even the Bible could not answer why the tragedy had to happen.

"We pray for the relatives and friends of the victims of Kaprun, so that they have the strength to survive these hard days," he said.

In Salzburg on Friday, mourners placed a single red rose for each of the victims at the foot of a Baroque crucifix, while Salzburg's bishop compared the pain of those grieving for the dead with Christ's agony on the cross.

"The Lord cried ... 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"' Bishop Georg Eder said, invoking Christ's moment of doubt before death. "Why? Why? A piercing, gnawing question that is impending here today in the cathedral."

Attending the Salzburg Mass Friday were Austrian President Thomas Klestil, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), November 18, 2000

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