The pretty village of Galtur, situated in the Austrian Tyrol, has long been a popular tourist destination. Lying in a valley and lovely all year round, it comes into its own during winter, with 40 km (25 mi) of pristine pistes. There are lifts and mountain railways and, if you are experienced, professional skiers will take you onto seriously challenging slopes. With a permanent population of roughly 870, the numbers rise to about 4,000 at the peak of the season.
In January 1999 a series of storms occurred, bringing with them 4 m (13 ft) of fine snow and forming a huge snowpack on the mountains above Galtur. Later that month a melt-crust developed — the upper layers melting during the day and refreezing at night. As new snow fell, the melt-crust became unstable until finally, on February 23, it failed and caused an enormously powerful powder avalanche to crash down the mountainside, picking up more and more snow as it went.
The avalanche took less than one minute to hit Galtur. At 50 m (164 ft) high and travelling at 290 kph (186 mph), it hit with the force of a bomb, overturning cars, ruining buildings and burying 57 people. By the time rescue crews managed to arrive, 31 people – locals and tourists — had died.
As in most of the region, Galtur is risk-zoned for avalanches; but it was the safe, Green Zone that was worst hit. The Austrian government asked for assistance and thousands of people were airlifted out, using helicopters from both Europe and the USA. Since then, the risk zones have been extended, steel fences have been erected on the surrounding slopes to create smaller areas to reduce the extent of any similar disasters, and a 300 m (984 ft) ‘avalanche dam’ now protects the village itself.
When: February 23 1999
Where: Galtur, Tyrol, Austria
Death toll: 31
You should know: Two dogs played a part in the Galtur avalanche. The first was Heiko, a rescue dog, which was responsible for finding many people buried under the snow. The second, a Labrador-Alsatian cross named Jack, was found alive after being buried under snow for 24 hours. His German owners had both died in the disaster, but a soldier in the search and rescue team adopted him.