Tragedies and disasters happen somewhere on the planet every day. A plane crash, a train collision, an avalanche, a bombing: These are the routine stuff of headlines, so predictable an element of the news that, unless they happen in one’s own back yard, like the Kobe earthquake or the 1996 Hokkaido tunnel disaster, one becomes almost inured to them, incapable of shock.
Occasionally, though, something occurs in a far-off place that is so unexpected and inexplicable that it really jolts us. That happened last weekend, when a cable car caught fire in an Austrian mountain tunnel, sparking an inferno that killed at least 159 people, many of them children and teenagers. Since the victims included a number of Japanese citizens, the feeling of appalled sadness here was naturally intensified. But the truth is, this was already an unusually disturbing disaster. When a cable-car expert from Austria’s Transport Ministry said on Sunday that the accident had “shocked us to our bones,” he was speaking for more people than he knew.
Nobody knows why this happened. Funicular trains are considered one of the safest means of transportation in existence. They have no engines, since the cables that pull them up steep inclines are powered by engines at the top. They carry no fuel or other fluids. And like the Mount Kitzsteinhorn train, which passed inspection as recently as September, most are supposedly made of fireproof materials. It turns out that there were not even any fire extinguishers in the doomed train’s passenger compartment, since a fire, according to another Transport Ministry official, was considered “practically impossible.”
The apparent absence of explanation is what makes this accident so chilling. In most disasters, it is possible to pinpoint a cause: a terrorist, a madman, a technical malfunction or simply what the lawyers call an act of God. Nobody is baffled when a volcano erupts or an earthquake strikes Japan or California. But the fire in the Kitzsteinhorn tunnel last Saturday appears causeless and therefore meaningless, an affront to our belief — or wish, or hope — that the world is subject to rational explanation. It opens a crack onto a void we would rather not think about.
That is an illusion, of course. A rational explanation exists and will be found, even if it takes months, as the Austrian authorities are predicting, and even if it proves to be a freakish coincidence of unlikely circumstances, as experts say they suspect. In the meantime, though, people will set about assigning whatever blame they can, as they always do in the wake of a disaster on this scale. It is a logical response to that specter of meaninglessness.
But it is also a constructive and necessary response, as two recent incidents remind us. If it is determined, first, that the recent train collision in London was a result of incompetence and neglect on the part of British rail authorities, then appropriate steps can be taken to remedy the situation. Similarly, it is essential to know whether the Singapore Airlines jet that crashed in Taipei earlier this month did so because of pilot error or mechanical malfunction, if such a tragedy is to be avoided in the future.
Even in the Austrian disaster, where the immediate cause is obscure, critics have pointed out several factors that probably made it far worse than it might have been. The lack of fire extinguishers on the train is one. The fact that it was obviously not made of fireproof materials is another. The cable-car company had no fire-evacuation procedures and the tunnel had only one emergency exit, which was inaccessible to the victims.
Concerned groups say these shortcomings are not peculiar to the Kitzsteinhorn facility and that a similar disaster could occur in any of numerous tunnels throughout Europe. In fact, 40 people died last year after a truck caught fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy, and another 12 were killed in a blaze in Austria’s sub-Alpine Tauern tunnel. All of these safety defects can and should be addressed — and not just in Europe. Tunnel and cable-car operators all over the world should be feeling less complacent about their assumptions and procedures. If they learn the right lessons from it, the Kitzsteinhorn accident may be the last of its kind.
But this is for the future. For now, Japan mourns its 10 dead — five of them talented and enthusiastic teenage skiers, four only in their 20s, the last the father of one of the junior high-schoolers — and grieves for their families and those of the 149 other presumed victims, Austrians, Germans, Americans, Slovenes, a Briton and a Croat. All the bereaved have the world’s condolences this week; we hope that soon they will also have explanations.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.