CHAMONIX, France -- Dozens of tourists, including a 10-year-old child, were safely rescued Friday after being trapped in cable cars dangling above the slopes of Mont Blanc in the Alps overnight.
The mountain rescue service in the French city of Chamonix said cables that had become entangled Thursday were repaired, and the cable cars were able to resume operation Friday morning.
The travelers were brought to Chamonix and the Italian town of Courmayeur.
A series of cable cars got stuck after the cables tangled at almost 12,000 feet altitude, prompting a major rescue operation. The interior minister said 65 people were rescued Thursday night, but 45 had to be left there overnight after rescue operations were halted because of rough flight conditions for helicopters and darkness.
Five rescuers stayed overnight in the cable cars and provided blankets, food and water to help weather the chilly mountain night-time conditions.
Those who were brought down Thursday night described an extraordinarily tense and risky rescue operation.
“We were there almost 10 hours in the cable car. The cable car left about 2:30 in the afternoon and it was just before midnight when they finally brought us out of the gondolas, which was really quite an experience,” said Kathy Cook, a tourist from Michigan.
“The helicopter rescue failed because the fog moved in, so we had to just wait and then they decided they could bring us safely to the ground, and we walked up the glacier to the hut,” she said upon arrival in Courmayeur.
When the fog moved in, the helicopter effort was called off, and rescuers concentrated on bringing down people whose cable cars were closest to the ground, Italian rescuer Mario Mochet said. Rescuers on the glacier below helped transfer them to a shelter on the slopes before they were brought further down the mountains.
“The extent of this rescue operation is simply unbelievable,” said Col. Frederic Labrunye, commander of the provincial gendarmerie group of Haute-Savoie. “By the volume of people to rescue - we rarely rescue 110 people at the same time in high mountain - and by the environment in which it happens ... in the heart of one of the largest glaciers in Europe, over a distance of five kilometers of cable with 36 cabins.”
Helicopters had to delicately fly over the cable, which is risky itself, then lower a rescuer on to an area “not larger than a table,” strap on passengers one by one and extract them, he said, describing it as “air surgery.”
The cable car, which offers spectacular up-close views of Western Europe’s tallest mountains and deep valleys below, connects the Aiguille de Midi peak in France, at 12,605 feet, to Pointe Helbronner in Italy, at 11,358 feet.