February 25, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Spencer Michels begins our coverage of the killer avalanches.
SPENCER MICHELS: Huge snowfalls over the past two weeks have touched off a series of deadly avalanches at ski areas in the mountains of Europe. In the last two days, two giant snow slides have ripped through popular Austrian resorts, killing more than 30 people, including a dozen foreign tourists. Five people are believed still buried.
The initial avalanche hit the heart of Galtur, Austria Tuesday afternoon, a tiny town near the Swiss border whose population swells to 4,000 during the ski season. Overturned cars and damaged buildings showed the force created by the traveling the 16-foot wall of snow hit. One tourist said: "That was not snow. It was like concrete."
The unusually high winds and record snow pack blamed for the huge snow slide held rescuers back for 16 hours. They were not able to fly into Galtur until yesterday. When they finally arrived, search teams quickly began to dig out victims.
A second avalanche in Valzur, Austria just six miles away near Ishchgl caused more devastation. The sliding snow destroyed 11 homes and two farm compounds in its path and killed at least five people. Searchers using a trained dog found a four-year-old boy, buried in the snow and rubble for nearly two hours. He was at first deemed clinically dead, but, amazingly, he was resuscitated by doctors and is now recovering in the hospital. The Alpine region of Europe suffers more avalanches than anywhere else in the world.
The most recent, in the Tyrolean Paznaun Valley last Tuesday and Wednesday, accounts for only some of the devastation. Since January, more than 70 people have been killed in avalanches throughout resort towns in France, Italy, and Switzerland, and the rest of Europe. Rescue teams continue to evacuate thousands of tourists from the area by helicopter.
As many as 20,000 people have been snowbound in Austria, and 60,000 in Switzerland, as weather conditions have closed highways and disrupted transportation. Many people are trying to leave the area. Some have criticized authorities for not doing more to get people out faster.
MAN: Which I already was scheduled to leave yesterday, and I just didn't have a chance to do that because nothing is organized. Trains are closed, roads are closed, and we have been promised helicopters on and off and nothing is happening. Right now they are flying in milk and keeping people waiting here.
SPENCER MICHELS: Authorities fear more avalanches could occur in the region following almost one and a half feet of new snow in the past 24 hours.
JIM LEHRER: And to Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And two perspectives now on the avalanches in the Alps. Dale Atkins is an avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a forecasting, and educational service. And Eugen Freund is Washington correspondent for the Austrian Radio and TV Network. Mr. Freund, are you hearing anything from your contacts that would update the report we just heard from Spencer?
EUGEN FREUND, Austrian Radio & TV Network: Just insofar as four people are still missing. The rescue operation was going on until late this night, Austrian time, about two and a half hours ago they had to discontinue because of the night. And they are still looking for four more people, instead of the five that were mentioned before.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think that increasingly large areas may have to be evacuated because of the snowfalls that are continuing and apparently temperatures are warming up a little bit?
EUGEN FREUND: The forecasts are not very good, actually. You mentioned that. Tomorrow it's going to get much warmer and the chances of more avalanches are increasing. And people -- most cases people want to get out. And I think there are provisions now for flying people out, as many as they can, and also as many people as want because, for example, in Galtur I've heard that there are still 1,000 people staying there and voluntarily staying there. So not everybody really wants to get out. They want to basically sit it out.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Freund, is this much worse than other winters you remember?
EUGEN FREUND: Oh, much, much worse. I mean, we didn't have this kind of an avalanche situation for 370 years. So this year has been extremely harsh. There was more snowfall than ever -- than anybody can remember and certainly than I can remember. And that is basically what caused this situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dale Atkins, explain more about what caused this situation.
DALE ATKINS, Colorado Avalanche Information Center: Well, the big problem in Austria and all of the Alpine countries is just simply too much snow too fast. And now there's also tremendous quantities of snow down on the valley floors. So, once an avalanche starts running it entrains tremendous quantities of snow and then can run far out into the valley floors and hit the villages.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Atkins, explain how it starts, how wide it is. What are the conditions that make an avalanche start?
DALE ATKINS: There are four ingredients that we need for a slab avalanche. We need a steep slope. We also need a slab of cohesive snow. With that, there needs to be a weak layer, a soft layer underneath the slab. Add to these three, a trigger and you may have an avalanche. The trigger can be new snow, or wind, skiers, snow mobilers, or even explosives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I know that this avalanche - we just saw pictures of the way it was coming down. But, let's say an avalanche comes down - you're skiing or hiking, can you outrun them?
DALE ATKINS: You can't outrun an avalanche. They move as fast as a car. And that's a misconception. Many people think they can, but you really can't.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And is it inevitable that if one comes over you that you are very likely to die, or are there other situations like the little boy, who apparently survived for almost two hours?
DALE ATKINS: Fortunately for most people that are caught in avalanches, they are recreational types, they're skiers; they're climbers. They tend to end up on the surface. But when avalanches strike villages and towns, they catch people inside the buildings; they end up being buried. And the chances of survival are really pretty slim. But when you are inside of a building or vehicle, it gives you much greater chance, and hopefully we'll see more miracle stories come out of Austria and the other countries over the next few days.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Atkins, why are the Alps so prone to avalanches?
DALE ATKINS: The Alps are a relatively young mountain range. So, they are fairly tall but they're also very steep. Add to that lots of snow, we get big avalanches.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we get them here in this country too.
DALE ATKINS: We do. But we don't have them on the magnitude that they are experiencing in Europe. Here in Colorado in an average winter, 2,000 avalanches are spotted and reported to us. In Switzerland, that number is maybe ten to twelve thousand avalanches a year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Freund, were snow breaks and other preventive measures in place in the Austrian villages where these terrible avalanches occurred?
EUGEN FREUND: This is quite an interesting question and I found out today when I tried to inquire what the situation was there, that Austria has actually tried to categorize areas which are in danger. There are so-called red zones and yellow zones. Of course the red zones are the ones where there is no construction and construction is prohibited, no houses there. And the yellow zone is the one where certain safety measures apply and certain housing codes apply. Galtur was completely in the yellow zone. That means the chances and the threat of avalanches were there, but that most of the buildings were built in a way that people would not get harmed. The problem was that when the avalanche struck on that day, it was 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and most of the people were out on the street. They were just coming back from the slopes. And most of the people who got killed were not in the buildings but, as I said, were on the road. And that caused the problem. On the other hand, I just want to finish the question that you had on these constructions. I mean, Austria has spent a tremendous amount of money for these kind of barriers for avalanches. Since 1945, after World War II, they have spent some $700 million just to prevent avalanches from coming down. And in the Paznaun Valley itself, they spent some $60 million. So they have done almost everything they could. But, again, in Paznaun, itself, it's been recorded for the last time in 1689 this kind of an avalanche.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dale Atkins, what is your view of these preventive measures in general like snow breaks?
DALE ATKINS: The barriers that we've talked about that are put in avalanche paths either to hold the snow in place or deflect the flow of an avalanche work very well. But it's in these exceptional years that happen so infrequently that too much snow can simply overwhelm these structures and the avalanches reach the valley floors.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Atkins, has the danger of avalanche grown with development on mountain sides, building of homes, cutting of trees?
DALE ATKINS: We certainly see the risk increasing. And I think this is worldwide, where people are moving into the mountains. They are exposing themselves to greater risk of avalanches if they are going to be living or playing on steep mountain slopes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there any evidence that the ski areas' altitude is higher and higher, which makes it more dangerous? DALE ATKINS: The ski areas are always in a battle to see who can have the highest lift. But the ski areas here in the states and in Europe do a tremendous job to make for a safe ski experience. So avalanches aren't much of a problem within the ski area.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eugen Freund, is this an issue in Austria, the issue of development and perhaps housing being a cause of this, building of housing on mountains?
EUGEN FREUND: Oh, certainly this is a big debate, particularly now as you can imagine, that people are debating whether they should prohibit these kind of slopes in these kinds of heights. But one of the differences I would like to point out between Colorado -- and I just happen to have come back from Vail myself -- one of the differences is that the timber line is so much higher in the mountains here, in the Rocky Mountains in the United States than in Austria.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much? What is the difference?
EUGEN FREUND: It's about, you know -- at 6,000 feet in Austria, there are no trees anymore, while in Vail, which itself is about 6,000 feet, I mean you can go up another 2,000 or 3,000 feet, and you still have timber which holds, of course, the snow back and the avalanches back. But, again. I don't want to give the impression that all of Austria is being, you know, swept over by avalanches. I mean, there are a number of great places where you can ski without any problems.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Atkins, what lessons do you think can be learned from this?
DALE ATKINS: Well, as the incident is reviewed as to the weather conditions that contributed to this, the snow pack conditions, we'll learn a lot in what led to these massive avalanches. The problem is the conditions, they'll return again, maybe in a few years, maybe 100 or 400 years. But hopefully next time we'll all be able to do a better job to help prevent the loss of life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Freund, what do you think Austria's learning from this and the Austrian government that has been trying to prevent avalanches?
EUGEN FREUND: Well, what they are doing right now, they are trying to evaluate the situation, and particularly in the areas that have been struck by these avalanches, I've heard that already now the government is trying to find out whether new structures have to be built and certainly if that has to be done, they will do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much.
EUGEN FREUND: Thank you.
DALE ATKINS: Thank you.