Update: Austrai, space heater blamed for cable car disaster

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SALZBURG, Austria (AP) -- A defective, illegally installed space heater combined with highly flammable hydraulic brake oil caused the deadly fire in an underground cable car that claimed the lives of 155 people last November, investigators said Thursday.

Walter Grafinger, president of Salzburg's regional court, also said experts believe the fire broke out before the cable car left the station in the valley near Kaprun, south of Salzburg.

Announcing the findings of a five-member expert commission that examined the tragedy, Grafinger said a small space heater located in the driver's cabin became blocked, causing hydraulic oil in nearby pipes to overheat.

The hot brake oil then dripped on to the plastic-coated floor, causing a fire to break out, he said.

Grafinger said that "such a space heater was not to be used in the cable cars" and had been installed without permission.

Officials declined to say who was responsible for fitting the heater to the car or for maintaining the hydraulic pipes. Prosecutor Friedrich Ginthoer said whoever was responsible also would be liable for all 155 deaths.

Witnesses reported seeing smoke coming from the rear of the car as it headed up the mountain near and into the tunnel.

Once in the tunnel, the cable car came to a standstill and the electric doors failed to open, trapping the skiers inside. Only a few managed to break through a window and flee down the mountain to safety.

The experts based their report on meticulous research of the remainder of the melted cable car and a twin car that was undamaged in the Nov. 11 tragedy.

A total of 161 skiers from Austria, Germany, the United States, Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic were in the car. It was the worst accident of its kind on record.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), September 06, 2001

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