KAPRUN, Austria (AP) _ Investigators revealed Tuesday that they found an oily substance on a mountain railway in Austria, offering the first possible clue as to what may have caused a cable car inferno that claimed at least 156 lives.
Police criminal investigators refused to say what sort of suspicious material they discovered on the ramp leading to the mountain tunnel where the cable car caught fire Saturday. Christian Tisch, a police forensic technician, said the material was being chemically analyzed and that it appeared to be similar in consistency to lubricants.
“The material looks as though it may have dropped from the vehicle,” Tisch said. He declined further comment on the substance, but said that before the train entered the tunnel “defects may have occurred.”
Despite the new clue, the cause of the deadly fire in the cable car remained uncertain. The Salzburg prosecutor’s office is investigating the disaster to determine if criminal charges could be filed.
Investigators combed the floor of the tunnel Tuesday, searching centimeter by centimeter for traces of human remains to help identify victims of the inferno.
Dozens of rescue workers battled against fatigue and exhaustion to pull bodies from the tunnel, working through the second straight night to try to recover as many as possible.
By Tuesday afternoon, strong winds stalled efforts to fly the bodies to Salzburg, slowing the already painstaking task of identifying the badly burned remains.
Experts had begun collecting toothbrushes and razor blades in hopes of finding DNA samples that matched with the bodies.
Investigators don’t yet know how many people perished in the inferno. Though authorities had believed at least 159 people died, they lowered that number on Tuesday to 156. Even then, they added the caveat that perhaps four more victims might yet be identified.
The cable car had a turnstile counting system, but officials say that children and teen-agers sometimes slip under the barrier, making that count subject to question.
The intensity of the fire left the bodies so badly charred that they could not be recognized, said chief forensic pathologist Edith Tutsch-Bauer.
Details about the accident continued to emerge Tuesday. A group of survivors belonging to a German ski club in Vilseck, Germany, issued a statement saying they heard two strong explosions while they were in the tunnel. The blasts apparently occurred after they managed to scramble out of the compartment and run away from the car.
Soon afterward, the cable pulling the car broke and sparks were shooting past them, the statement said.
“Each one in the group was in panic, fearing that the burning train could get loose and crash down the flight path,” the statement said.
Lists of victims were mostly complete by Monday, primarily by identifying those left unaccounted for among skiers and snowboarders on the glacier slope Saturday. But the identification of bodies could take up to four weeks, said Tutsch-Bauer.
Those missing and presumed dead include eight Americans, including a family of four and two soldiers who became engaged last week.
Officials said 18 people survived _ 12 who saved themselves from the cable car after they broke its window with a ski and six who had been waiting at the top of the tunnel. One was in serious condition, the others were released from the hospital Sunday.
The disaster was believed to be the worst involving skiers being transported by cable car.
Two Austrian cable cars resembling the one on that caught fire on Kitzsteinhorn have been halted for safety checks.