Kerstin Joensson  /  AP
Photographers surround the 16 defendants Thursday before the last session of the November 2000 cable-car fire trial  in Salzburg, Austria. A judge acquitted all 16 suspects in the fire that killed 155 people.
updated 2/19/2004 10:02:59 PM ET 2004-02-20T03:02:59

Claiming a miscarriage of justice, stunned relatives of 155 skiers and snowboarders killed in a November 2000 alpine cable-car fire wept bitterly Thursday after a judge acquitted 16 suspects of criminal negligence.

Prosecutors immediately appealed the verdicts, and lawyers for the families said they would continue civil proceedings in the United States and Germany seeking millions of dollars in compensation.

“This is a slap in the face to all the relatives of the dead,” said Brigitte Hochhalter, an Austrian who lost her only son, Daniel, when fire swept through the crowded cable car on Nov. 11, 2000.

Judge Manfred Seiss ruled there was insufficient evidence to find all 16 defendants — including cable car company officials, technicians and government inspectors — responsible for conditions that allowed a faulty heater to cause the blaze.

Limits of culpability questioned
All 16 had pleaded innocent. If convicted, they would have faced up to five years in prison.

“The law also has to protect those who are innocent,” Seiss said in explaining his ruling. “In this case, we had to discover how far the defendants were personally responsible for what happened. We decided they weren’t responsible.”

“No one could have known that the heater could be the source of a fire,” he said.

Most of the victims were from Austria and Germany. Eight were Americans, including a family of four and a newly engaged couple. Others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Britain.

Only 12 people managed to escape the car as it turned into a fireball inside a tunnel on the side of the Kitzsteinhorn glacier near the popular Kaprun resort, 60 miles south of Salzburg. The car was part of what is known as a funicular train that ascended the mountain on a track while being pulled by a steel cable.

Roy Challis, the father of the only British victim, 41-year-old ski instructor Kevin Challis, said he was “very angry and extremely disgusted” with the verdict.

“There was steam coming out of my ears when I heard the decision,” he said. “There has been a serious miscarriage of justice — not just for Kevin but for the other 154 people who died.”

Georg Koechler  /  AP file
Smoke pours from the upward mouth of the tunnel in Kaprun, Austria, where a cable car caught fire in this November 2000 file photograph.
U.S. lawyer Ed Fagan said more relatives would join a civil case in the United States against companies he alleges were involved in causing the tragedy.

'They were killed'
“These people did not die accidentally, they were killed,” Fagan said, listing a series of alleged safety failures on the cable car. “The only thing that this case proves is that there is no justice in Austria.”

A spokesman for cable car operating company Gletscherbahnen Kaprun AG welcomed the acquittals.

“There can be no guilty verdict where no guilt was involved,” said the spokesman, Harald Schiffl. “We sympathize with the relatives of those who died, but the court has reached the correct decision.”

The prosecution alleged that officials from the company which ran the cable car, the manufacturers and installers of the heater and government officials who carried out safety inspections were responsible for allowing the inferno to happen by neglecting to check into what a simple fault could do.

Seiss said he agreed with investigators’ findings that the blaze most likely started when a production-related defect in a space heater caused a heating element to come loose, causing hydraulic brake oil in nearby pipes to overheat, drip onto the plastic-coated floor and set it alight.

However, Seiss said the combination of conditions which led to the blaze could not have been predicted in advance.

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