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Court Acquits Cable Car Suspects

A court in Salzburg, Austria, has acquitted all 16 people who were charged in the ski-train blaze that killed 155 people in the Alpine resort of Kaprun in November 2000.


Disappointment was visible in the court room after the verdict was announced.

An Austrian judge on Thursday cleared all charges of criminal negligence in a cable car fire in Kaprun that killed 155 people in the country's most deadly peacetime disaster. Judge Manfred Seiss ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict the 16 suspects -- including train operators, suppliers and inspectors -- held responsible for conditions that allowed a faulty heater to short circuit and engulf the train in a deadly inferno on Nov. 11, 2000.

The verdict was received with shouts of protests from victims' relatives, many of whom had traveled to Salzburg for the verdict. "This is unbelievable -- it simply can't be true," a relative of one of the victims told reporters.

Most victims were skiers and snowboarders from Austria and Germany. Eight were Americans, others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The youngest victim was a 6-year-old boy. Only 12 people managed to escape the train as it turned into a fireball inside a tunnel on the side of the Kitzsteinhorn glacier 60 miles south of Salzburg. Many of the victims could only be identified weeks later after analysis of their DNA.

During the hearings, prosecutors alleged that officials from the company that ran the ski-train, the manufacturers and installers of the heater, and government officials who carried out safety inspections were responsible for neglecting to ensure the train's heater was in good working condition. All 16 defendants had pleaded innocent. If convicted, they would have faced up to five years in prison.

Survivors testified

The court heard testimonies from 95 witnesses, including survivors, and compiled some 500 pages in expert analysis. According to experts who reviewed the wreck, the blaze was probably caused by a faulty part in the heater, and this in turn ignited oil dripping from a system for hydraulic brakes. When the fire spread to the plastic-coated floors of the train, it was already too late.

Passengers sitting at the back of the train, where the heater was located, managed to break the windows and escape by running downhill out of the tunnel. Those who fled uphill, however, were quickly overcome by toxic fumes.

The trial which lasted more than 18 months, was marked by a series of delays, and one of the main technical experts had to be replaced due to illness.

Separate civil trials are also under way in New York and in Germany, where lawyers for American and German victims are seeking billions of euros in compensation. The operating company had earlier refused to deal with compensation claims until verdicts were issued in the criminal case.

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