Kaprun is a municipality in central Austria with a population of 3130 (as of the 1st of January 2020, in 2001 it was at 2903), sitting at 786m/2580ft in a valley 100km/62mi east of Innsbruck and 11.5km/7mi south-southwest of Zell am See, with which it creates the tourism-area Zell am See-Kaprun, focusing on providing accommodation and infrastructure for winter sport tourism. The area counts 2.5 million overnight visits by tourists per year, mostly attracted by offering skiing and similar activities on the 3203m/10505ft “Kitzsteinhorn” almost year-round. Getting visitors up there is the “Gletscherbahn Kaprun” (Kaprun Glacier Railway), a company operating (as of 2020) 15 cable cars and funiculars along with a couple of surface lifts.
The train involved:
Opening in March 1974 the Gletscherbahn Kaprun 2 (GBK 2) was a 3900m/12800ft funicular running from the valley station (at 911m/2990ft of elevation) south of the town of Kaprun up to the “Alpincenter” at 2450m/8040ft where the guests could start skiing or take cable cars and lifts to other starting points. A funicular can be seen as similar to a cable car upside down, running on tracks with the cable below the cabins/trains (this differentiation became important). They usually use a single-track setup with a small siding in the middle and two trains. Both trains hang on one shared cable, acting as each other’s counterweight, and possess no engines of their own. A motor in the summit station drives a pulley, moving one train up the hill as the other moves down. The siding in the middle is exactly where the trains meet, allowing them to pass one-another. There is also a station/access tunnel (named “Breitriesenalpe”) at the siding. Skiers would go into a tunnel a little further up the hill and come out, still on skis, right by the platform if they didn’t feel like skiing all the way down.
The trains on the GBK 2 would pass a 600m/1970ft uphill bridge after departing before entering a tunnel for the remaining distance and ending up in the basement of the Alpincenter. Running on a unique 946mm wide gauge (a normal railroad has 1435 mm) the track had a maximum incline of 500 slope per mille, 26.6°. To compare, the steepest conventional railway in the world is found in Linz (Austria) and only has 10.5 degrees of incline. The tunnel was unlit, and apart from the track held a small maintenance/emergency catwalk as well as cables and pipes s providing electricity and water to the Alpincenter.
In 1994 the trains were replaced with new, much more modern looking units (bearing resemblance to a tram). Each unit consisted of two parts, split into several compartments for a total of 180 passengers per train. Including the control cabs each train measured 29m/95ft in length and 1.8m/6ft in width. They reached up to 36kph/mph, completing the trip to the top in about 8.5 minutes. While the employee in the driver’s cab (best referred to as an attendant) had no driving duties he would communicate with a control center, operate the doors and generally make passengers feel safer than if they’d find themselves alone in the somewhat autonomous train.
To tell the two trains apart they were given different names, one being named “Gletscherdrache” (Glacier Dragon) and one “Kitzsteingams” (Kitzstein is the mountain they serviced, and a Gams is a mountain goat). While obviously unpowered the trains featured a hydraulic system holding 160l/42US Gallons of oil for brakes and doors as well as an electrical system for lights and radio communications. Low voltage electronics aboard the train were fed from the same 16 Kilovolt cable that also fed the Alpincenter, which ran right next to the track.
Early in the morning of the 11th of November 2000 161 people board the waiting “Kitzsteingams” train in the valley station for the day’s first trip to the Alpincenter.
At 9:02am the attendant closes the doors and the train departs the station for the bridge. Being a funicular, the Gletscherdrache departs the Alpincenter station also, starting to move down the tunnel. Contrary to the ascending train it’s almost empty, only holding the attendant and a single passenger. Unbeknownst to everyone hydraulic fluid had started to leak from a faulty fitting inside the valley-side control cab. This was also where the train’s heating was located, a simple space-heater installed in the front wall of the control desk. With electricity being turned on the heater turned on also, gradually increasing in temperature. The fan in the heater starts sucking in oil, creating a flamable fog.
As the train left the station metal elements of the heater reached over 600°C/1112°F, enough to ignite the hydraulic fluid. A survivor later allows timing of the events, showing that smoke comparable to an extinguished candle or cigarette had been visible barely 20m/65ft into the trip. Unnoticed by the attendant and most passengers the fire slowly spread, fed by flammable materials inside the desk and gradually ate into the hydraulic lines.
There is no way to notify staff, no intercom or emergency brakes. The only person who could stop the train, the attendant up front, may just as well not on be the train at all. Seemingly without problem the Kitzsteingams finishes it’s journey across the bridge and enters the tunnel. At this point the unfolding events cannot be avoided. Only seconds after the train enters the tunnel the fire has eaten through enough hydraulic lines for pressure to drop to zero, causing the brakes to come on (as they were designed to) and abruptly stop the train 532m/1750ft into the tunnel. Again, since the trains are permanently linked by the cable, this also means the descending Gletscherdrache is caught in the tunnel, closer to the upper end. Now flickering lights can be seen in the valley-side control cab, soon followed by actual flames starting to come out of the control desk. This causes a panic in the crammed compartments, passengers starting to bang on the windows and doors. There is a backup release system, but only the attendant can operate it. The trains are fitted with acrylic windows, which is supposed to be shatterproof to increase safety. Tragically, it’s what significantly delays the escape of the passengers. In their desperation some passengers use skiing equipment to try and break the windows.
At 9:06am the attendant radios to his superiors in the Alpincenter, reports a suspected fire. He is ordered to open the doors and report back, right before the fire destroys the electrical system in the tunnel, plunging the train and Alpincenter into darkness. He presumably attempts to release the doors, but without pneumatic pressure the attempt is destined to fail. A small group of passengers manages to break a few windows on the valley-side of the train, climbing and tumbling out onto the narrow catwalk. Among them is an experienced firefighter, vacationing in the alps. He manages to convince 11 other passengers to follow him downhill, through darkness and smoke on the narrow catwalk, past the fire (which by now is no longer contained inside the train). Presumably, at this point the plastic bodywork of the train had caught fire. The small group eventually stumbles out of the lower portal onto the bridge, exhausted and coughing but alive.
Around 9:10am the doors are finally released and most passengers manage to leave the train before an explosion reportedly rocks the tunnel. In pitch-black darkness, in a steep tunnel with ski-shoes on while stumbling over one another the escaped passengers start to try and move away from the fire, uphill. None of them even reach the siding, most get asphyxiated by the thick poisonous smoke before the fire gets to them. The angle of the tunnel acts like a chimney, sucking in oxygen at the bottom and pushing the heat and smoke upwards. Reaching the station at the top the smoke has enough pressure and speed to shatter windows before filling the building. The attendant in the descending train is later found dead in the control cab, his sole passenger left the train and inexplicably moved downhill a short distance before dying also. In the Alpincenter two employees spot the smoke early and tell visitors to leave the building through various exits. Unbeknownst to them opening more doors meant the smoke got sucked up into the building faster, accellerating the events that would leave two guests and an employee dead.
Failing to regain electricity or contact either train the staff in the Alpincenter alarms the fire department at 9:12am. One of the firefighters getting the alarm is in Zell am See when his pager goes off, he reports looking over towards Kaprun with binoculars and seeing black smoke emit from the mountain. By this point, 155 people are dead. Everyone from the Kitzsteingams, except for the 12 people who managed to move downhill, dies, as well as both people in the descending Gletscherdrache and 3 people in the Alpincenter. The victims have various nationalities, including 92 Austrians, 37 Germans, 10 Japanese, 8 US-citizens and 4 Slovenians. Among the dead is Sandra Schmitt, a 19 years old German ski-talent who had earned gold at the freestyle world cup 1999, along with her parents, 3 coaches and 4 junior talents from the German Ski Association. All in all 31 of the victims are under 18 years old.
The Red Cross reaches the valley station before the fire department does, but they cannot enter the tunnel, much less help people who might still be alive inside. With firefighters arriving the valley station is evacuated, responders fear that the fire could eat through the cable sending a fiery 30 metric ton bullet crashing into the valley. A small group of responders meets the survivors on the bridge, entering the tunnel soon has firefighters turn around. Even without the smoke the heat alone is too severe to approach the fire, there is nothing that can be done from this entrance. The cable does give out at 9:35am, but no train comes barreling down the hill. Either the brakes, or what was left of them, still held on, or the heat had welded the train to the track. More and more fire departments send their units, at 10am the first of what will be eleven helicopters lands near the valley-station. No-one is calculating with survivors in the tunnel at this point.
Note: From here on events happened simultaneously in several places, which I will try to organize somewhat understandably.
At 10:10am the firefighters are split into groups, two of which are ferried to the Alpincenter and the midway station with the helicopters. At 11:34 a small team of firefighters enters the smoke-filled Alpincenter and carries out an unconscious person. He actually survives, being the only survivor recovered by responders. Moving further through the building they find the two dead visitors as well as the dead employee of the Glacier Railway in the control room. Tents set up near the Alpincenter for a Snowboarding-event (the reason for the large number of young people among the victims) are quickly turned into a support station for the responders. Simultaneously equipment and firefighters are dropped off at the entrance-tunnel for the midway station, which is also, obviously, completely filled with smoke.
The smoke in the downhill access-tunnel makes even more difficult to try and access the remains of the Kitzsteingams, as the distance alone strains the limits of the oxygen tanks used and moving (at times) steeply uphill increases oxygen-consumption even more than if it were a level tunnel. Instead high-powered fans are placed at each access point, helping to push the smoke out the top faster than it would come out on it’s own. Only the bottom ones can be used at this point, the smoke is too heavy to safely place the others. Around noon a briefing makes it official, no survivors have exited the tunnel after the first group and the situation inside it leaves no chance of survival. At the same time the police closes off the road to and from the area, with help from the red cross cars are diverted into a 4 lanes wide makeshift checkpoint. Checking IDs and comparing them with names from booked hotels and ski-passes in the area allows to create a somewhat reliable list of missing persons. Getting unharmed people off the mountain via cable car allows the gathering of further names. The lists with people who definitely survived/were accounted for were then forwarded to the employees working hotlines for concerned relatives as well as published online. A press conference is held at a gym within the town of Kaprun, diverting journalists away from the site.
At 1pm two groups, equipped with special long-duration breathing systems, move towards the train from the midway station. As they approach the wreckage they are faced with a sight they won’t ever forget. Over 60 dead bodies fill the last 50m/164ft uphill of the Kitzsteingams, none of the passengers who chose to move uphill made it any further. The firemen themselves are in great danger also, not only are even the long-duration breathing systems barely sufficient, the heat also melted, bent and tore the narrow catwalk in the dark tunnel. Still unsure about the safety of the train’s brakes the teams turn around and report back, but for now the bodies cannot be recovered.
At 15:05pm a different group enters the tunnel through the Alpincenter, finding the soot-covered but otherwise undamaged Gletscherdrache along with the dead attendant inside and managing to secure it against dropping into the valley. Around 5pm most responders are withdrawn from the scene.
At 8am the next morning the recovery-effort restarts, during the night employees of the Glacier Railway constructed a simple cart to carry both equipment into and victims out of the tunnel.
Originally the bodies are to be identified near the valley station, but the fire often left so little behind that the remains have to be taken to the coroner’s office where the DNA can be matched with items from missing persons’ hotel rooms. During the day the remaining fans can be placed and turned on, and by the late afternoon the tunnel can be entered with just simple particle filtering masks instead of oxygen tanks. Firefighters mostly helped the investigators move equipment, while the mountain rescue secured the investigators so they wouldn’t fall on the slippery surfaces. An unnamed firefighter later reveals that a TV-station offered him 5 million Austrian Schilling (~363 thousand Euros/440 thousand USD) to secretly snap a photo of the burned train and the victims before they are recovered. The Monday after the fire most responders leave the site, all in all over 1500 people were involved in the rescue and recovery, including 771 firefighters, 346 members of the red cross, 270 police officers and 150 Austrian soldiers. Further involved were 5 coroners, twelve mountain rescue members, 45 psychologists, 50 local employees of the Glacier Railway and the municipality and 66 employees of the media office and a hotline hosted in Munich.
On the 7th of December the Alpincenter reopens, the former station has been closed off and the acces-hallway now houses lockers. Visitors start to return while the investigation is still ongoing in the tunnel a few hundred meters down the hillside.
The last victim is removed from the site on the 15th, before the burned remains of the train are recovered in February 2001. A week later modifications to the cable-system allow recovery of the essentially undamaged Gletscherdrache, both are taken to Linz with the Gletscherdrache being slowly disassembled by investigators, helping them understand the systems aboard the train. The two trains being absolutely identical was incredibly helpful, as the Kitzsteingams had burned into unrecognizability.
On the 11th of May 155 wooden crosses are lined up along the road to the valley station, one for each victim. Three days later a local resident surrenders himself at the police station. He explains that he used his car to run down the crosses, having lost his child in the fire he couldn’t bear the reminder twice a day.
Combing through the wreckage and comparing it with the Gletscherdrache investigators not only soon find the cause of the fire, they also make a shocking discovery. The same lines that caused the fire in the Kitzsteingams were leaking in the other train also. Both trains were essentially firebombs on a delay-timer, the only question was which would go off first and with how many people caught in it. Tragically it hit a nearly full train in the lower part of the tunnel, the worst place for it to happen. When the heaters were installed after attendants had complained of the cold draft going through the train in the tunnel a wooden casing had been constructed, shielding the lines from view and making it even harder to spot the leaks.
Its soon clear that the space heaters (called “Fakir Hobby”) were never meant to be in a place like this, they are meant to stand in houses and not be permanently installed, much less permanently powered. Investigators also found that the heaters had been manipulated, removing an overheating-protection. The manufacturer explicitly remarks on the front of the packaging that they are “for bathrooms and living spaces”:
On the 18th of June the main trial against 16 defendants starts in Salzburg, on various charges of negligence. It becomes a 2 years long, exhausting, insulting (by all means) shitshow.
- A member of the maintenance-department who bought the heaters at the store successfully defends himself with the explanation that no-one told him specifically what the heaters were for.
- The acquisition-department of the train’s manufacturer cannot be blamed since they had initially told employees to buy a different, safe heater. They supposedly didn’t know another, unfit unit was bought when the former wasn’t available in time. Specifically, they had asked for “Domo”-heaters, which were already approved and in use in another Austrian funicular. These were significantly different from the heaters that ended up being installed and would’ve been safe to use.
- A group of employees successfully claims that the funicular, not having engines, is not a train but something closer to an elevator or just a room, meaning the heater not being meant for trains didn’t mean it couldn’t be installed there. The fact that opening, partially disassembling and manipulating the heaters for installation in the valley-side cab (the summit-side could fit the unopened, complete heater, and both summit-sides received the proper heaters ahead of the fire) broke safety-seals and meant the heaters shouldn’t have been used ANYWHERE was not made known in the trial and thus wasn’t part of the ruling. In fact, the manual of the heaters tells users to discard the heaters if the seal has been broken and/or the internals been messed with. However, no-one involved had the proper manuals, documentation only held manuals for the intended Domo-heaters.
- The same excuse, declaring funiculars as different to trains, explains why the highly flammable liquid could be used on the train, and why there were no emergency exits, emergency brakes, fire extinguishers or emergency releases for the doors by the doors. It is without doubt that, had the train been able to stop on the bridge, the death toll would have been far lower, if not zero.
- Three people involved with the installation and maintenance of fireproof doors in the Alpincenter were charged when it came to light that guests fleeing the summit-station had managed to open a fire-proof door which shut as smoke reached the station. After their escape the doors did not close again, allowing a lot more smoke to fill the center a lot faster. The defendants were relieved of guilt when the blame was placed on unidentified survivors opening the doors by hand after automatic closure, which wasn’t allowed.
On the 19th of February the trial ends without anyone being proven sufficiently guilty, a ruling upheld by the next-higher court in Linz in September 2005. The final words of the sentencing declare that the installation of 4 unfit heaters, two of which were manipulated (making them illegal to operate at all) and all of which later had their mounting-position modified by adding insulation, caused the fire. But no-one can be proven to be personally responsible for the unfolding events.
In a separate trial charges are brought against the manufacturer of the heater, the trial ends the same way since it’s proven that the heater, in it’s unaltered shape, fulfills all requirements for a space heater in a house.
In Spring 2006 the the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg refuses to pursue charges against Austria as a whole over negligent and lackluster safety-demands for funiculars and cable cars.
The father of one victim sues the Glacier Railway on his own, the trial ends in 2007 against payment of 220 thousand Euros (266 thousand USD), explicitly without an admission of guilt or responsibility.
In June 2008 451 relatives and survivors sign an agreement and receive a total of 13.9 Million Euros/16.9 Million USD, split into different amounts. In return, they agree to pursue no more legal action on the matter.
In November 2008 several relatives and survivors attempted to take a number of experts who had testified in the original trial to court over professional negligence, without success.
A US-American lawyer pursued charges in a separate trial in New York in 2009, but courts declined to take action since it was not their jurisdiction.
While no-one was ever found guilty several laws and regulations were changed, and today the safety-standards of funiculars are higher making a repeat impossible. Modern funiculars now include fire detection systems, illuminated tunnels and better options to evacuate the train in an emergency.
A few of the people involved in the trial had impressive careers, the leading defense attorney became the justice minister from 2013 to 2017 and the leading investigator became the head of the Austrian police and chief of the federal police office.
The site since the accident
After receiving the remains of the two trains from the public prosecutor’s office in January 2006 a revitalization of the funicular as a freight-system was briefly considered, the Glacier Railway wanted to use the line, without seats in the trains, to help carry the annual 600 metric tons of food and drinks up the hill and 130 metric tons of garbage back down. But since the existing systems were more than sufficient this plan was scrapped along with any hint of restarting passenger service. The trains were eventually scrapped later the same year.
In 2014 the bridge and valley-station were removed, the position of the former can still be identified by a few concrete footers. The cables and pipes inside the tunnel were repaired and are still in use, the lower portal was permanently closed and is allegedly secured against trespassing (not that it would be easy to reach), being several meters off the ground in a vertical rock wall). Around the same time the windows looking into the station in the Alpincenter were boarded up, before this people looking into the station sometimes claimed seeing the Gletscherdrache “sleeping” in it. What they actually saw were doors on the edge of the platform, meant to keep people from falling into the track. Obviously it would’ve made no sense to return the train (after reassembling it), pull it all the way up the hill and leave it there.
In 2001 and 2002 the “Gletscherjet” (Glacier-Jet) 1 and 2 opened, the two cable cars replace the funicular’s service.
The fire and trial have been the subject of several books and documentaries, including the 9th episode of “Seconds from Disaster” and Hubertus Godeysen’s “155”, a book focusing on the trial (which is where I got photos of the control desk, as the report hasn’t been fully published).
In November 2004 an official memorial was opened near the former location of the valley-station. A large rectangular concrete structure, chosen to differentiate it from the surrounding buildings, won a voting by relatives and survivors with almost 90% of the votes. The far side of the building holds a small window looking right towards the tunnel, while the long walls are interrupted by 155 vertical stripes of colored glass. Each stripe refers to one of the victims, the colors being decided via the Chinese Feng Shui principles. According to Feng Shui every year is symbolized by one of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water), so the year of birth of each victim decided what color the corresponding stripe would have.