Austrian authorities on Wednesday put the final death toll from last weekend's fire in an Alpine mountain tunnel at 155, by far the worst disaster ever suffered by the country's multimillion dollar skiing industry.
Criminal police investigator Franz Lang said 152 of the victims were discovered in the tunnel, where the cable car carrying skiers and snowboarders was traveling when it caught fire. The other three were found at a station stop at the very top of the tunnel.
By mid-afternoon, all of the bodies had been recovered from the tunnel and sent to a forensic institute in Salzburg for identification, said Franz Schwab, the coordinator of the rescue effort.
Clouds shrouding part of the mountainside had delayed shuttle flights by Austrian army helicopters earlier Wednesday, but they resumed later in the day.
Forensic experts in Salzburg plan to use DNA testing and dental records to try to identify the badly burned remains of those killed in Saturday's accident. Identification could take weeks, experts said.
None of the bodies have been identified yet, but the nationalities of those missing and presumed dead were: 92 Austrians, 37 Germans, 10 Japanese, eight Americans, four Slovenes, two Dutch, and one person each from Great Britain and the Czech Republic.
The cause of Austria's worst mountain accident ever remained unclear, four days after the car burst into flames while taking skiers to the slopes on Kitzsteinhorn mountain. The second worst is believed to be an avalanche on Feb. 23, 1999, in the Galtuer region, which killed 38 people.
New details emerged Tuesday: Investigators spoke of a possible defect having occurred before the train entered the steep tunnel inside the mountain Saturday morning, and survivors told of explosions shortly after flames enveloped the car.
Christian Tisch, a police forensic technician, said police had found an oily substance that appeared to have dripped from the car on the ramp leading into the tunnel. The car stopped some 600 yards inside.
Tisch said the material was being chemically analyzed and it appeared to be similar in consistency to lubricants.
Meanwhile, skiing club members from the southern German town of Vilseck said in a statement they heard two "loud explosions, one immediately after the other," shortly after they clambered out through a broken window and began running toward the tunnel entrance. Almost immediately afterward, one of the two steel cables used to pull the car upward broke and shot by them "throwing off sparks."
"Each one in the group was in panic, fearing that the burning train could get loose and crash down the flight path," the statement said.
In separate comments, Austrian Regina Rammer told state television that the cable car she took apparently the one before the car that caught fire stopped briefly and without explanation once inside the tunnel. She then heard knocking "like that of a hammer on a pipe."
The Salzburg prosecutor's office is investigating the disaster to determine if criminal charges could be filed. Investigators remained tightlipped about possible causes, citing legal considerations and a lack of firm clues.
"There is no incriminating evidence," said Lang. "This matter is completely, completely open."
Five members of a U.S. Army forensics unit in Germany have joined the recovery and identification mission, said Army spokesman Capt. Paul Swiergosz.
Those missing and presumed dead include eight Americans, among them a family of four and two soldiers who became engaged last week.
The missing family Maj. Michael C. Goodridge, 36; Jennifer Goodridge, 35; and their sons, 7-year-old Michael and 5-year-old Kyle was based in Germany. At the Wuerzburg Elementary School that Michael attended, classmates remembered their missing friend with drawings and letters, stacking his desk in the second-grade classroom with crayon tributes depicting him playing on swings or with his guinea pig.
"I wish that there was a path, and you didint go on the trane" one of Michael's classmates wrote, with a second grader's imperfect spelling.
The accident sent a chill through Europe, where the ski season is about to begin.
In parts of the continent, safety checks on rail and cable car systems were stepped up Tuesday. But other officials said the cause of the fire in Austria must be determined before experts can say whether other vehicles pose similar risks.
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