Five dead after Swiss avalanches

January 4, 2010 3:58:20 AM PST
A series of weekend avalanches in the Swiss Alps killed at least five people, including a rescue doctor swept up while searching for a group of buried skiers. Snowfall and fog was hampering Monday's search for three people believed still trapped. Authorities warned of "considerable" avalanche risk after snowslides hit a group of skiers and then the rescuers who came to their aid in the Diemtig Valley, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the capital Bern, on Sunday.

An emergency doctor who was part of the rescue team was among the four people confirmed killed there.

"Rescuers haven't been able to resume their search today because the helicopter can't get close to the site due to the bad weather," police spokeswoman Ursula Stauffer told The Associated Press by telephone.

She said the three missing skiers were part of a large group that was skiing off-piste in the Chummli area of the Diemtig Valley when an avalanche buried one member of the party around midday Sunday.

Rescuers who arrived to help the skiers about half an hour later were hit by a second avalanche at the same spot, said Stauffer.

Officials subsequently launched a massive operation involving eight helicopters and 100 rescuers in an attempt to save their colleagues and the missing skiers.

Eight people were pulled from the snow alive, but three later died in the hospital of their injuries, Stauffer said. One person was recovered dead. Officials halted the rescue and recovery operation at nightfall Sunday.

Stauffer declined to provide details on those killed until a news conference scheduled for late Monday afternoon.

Bernhard Scherz, an official with the Rubigen ski club who took part in the rescue, told Swiss Web site 20 Minuten Online that one of those recovered alive from the avalanche was an Englishman. He had been buried under 8 feet (2.5 meters) of snow.

Separately, two skiers were buried in another avalanche near the town of Verbier close to the borders with France and Italy. One person was killed while his guide was rescued alive, police in the southern canton of Valais said.

The start of the ski season and heavy snowfall in recent days have prompted officials to warn of a heightened avalanche risk in the Swiss Alps.