Story By: Ana Marjanovic, Sub-Editor: Michael Leidig, Agency: Newsflash
A school could be on the hook for a GBP 15,500 bill after 99 terrified schoolchildren had to be airlifted from a dangerous mountain hiking trail when their teachers allegedly bungled the route.
Martin Burger, the manager of the Vorarlberg mountain rescue service, has told Austrian media that the cost of rescuing the 99 German schoolkids and their eight adult supervisors amounts to about EUR 18,000 (GBP 15,500).
It is still unclear who will have to foot the bill, with a court set to clarify who is responsible for the incident that could see the school forced to pay up.
One of the teachers who picked out the dangerous alpine hiking trail off an internet post, causing 99 terrified schoolkids to be airlifted when they became stranded could even face jail time. The teacher has however not been named due to strict local privacy laws.
Burger reportedly said that the large bill is down to a police helicopter having to fly for three hours and a mountain rescue helicopter having to remain airborne for an hour and a half, with work also performed by rescuers on the ground.
Alpine rescuers scrambled two helicopters and 50 extraction experts to pluck the 99 German youngsters from the Austrian mountainside in heavy rain.
Furious officials blamed the adults accompanying the children for misreading advice on the hazardous path.
The trail is, in fact, so dangerous it was removed from official tourist guides.
A teacher only called police for help when the pupils – aged between 12 and 14 – and eight adults became trapped on the Alpine track in Hirschegg on the Austrian-German border.
The horrified group leader had realised that the exhausted children could go neither forward nor back to their hotel down in the valley.
Two pupils had already suffered injuries as they fell over on the slippery and rocky trail.
And police later said that many of the children were not wearing appropriate footgear for the hike.
Klaus Drexel – spokesman for the Vorarlberg Mountain Rescue Association – said it was just a lucky break that his team had access to two helicopters for the rescue.
Drexel said: “We split them into groups. The worsening weather conditions made this operation even more challenging.
“We consider recent developments on the internet very critical.
“Some trails that are listed and rated on the different websites even don’t consist anymore.”
It later emerged that the teacher planning the trip chose the route after reading a post on a hiking website.
It was described as an ideal opportunity for a “relaxed after-work stroll.”
But she failed to notice that the post’s author was an expert climber who had posted nearly 300 hiking and climbing reports.
Drexel later warned: “Naively trusting what you read somewhere online can get you in unpleasant situations.”
He appealed on tourists who are unsure about hiking trails to ask the local tourism office or alpine associations for advice.
More than 50 mountain rescuers, firefighters and medical staff participated in the huge rescue.
Several pupils reportedly suffered from hypothermia and some needed counselling from local psychologists.
Vorarlberg Police spokesman Wolfgang Duer said: “Our teams concentrated on getting the students into the valley as quickly as possible.
“The rescue call was made in the late afternoon and it getting dark quickly.”
It is unclear whether the school will have to foot the bill for the rescue.
Local police have filed a report to the state prosecution in Feldkirch.
In recent years, Austrian authorities have intensified their attempts to charge tourists for complex rescue operations.
There have been numerous cases of careless holidaymakers airlifted to safety after opting for challenging hiking paths wearing just flip flops or sneakers.
Local rescue institutions warn of the dangers of sudden changes to weather conditions such as sudden downpours, thunderstorms and intense snowfall throughout the year.
Andreas Haid, the mayor of the local town of Mitterberg, said it was getting harder and harder to verify the quality of hiking reports on the internet.
Haid said: “There are more and more individuals acting totally irresponsible by posting such texts online.”
Vorarlberg Police pointed out that the hiking track chosen by the German group was anything but easy.
The police announced: “The narrow Heuberggrat path features climbing passages. Individuals with a lack of experience should not take it.
“That is the reason why the local tourism office decided to remove it from their maps some time ago.”
The hiking group – from Ludwigshafen across the German border – started out at Schoental in Vorarlberg’s Kleinwalsertal Valley.
They planned to take the Heuberggrat to reach the Walmendingerhorn Mountain’s 6,529-foot peak.
Cornelia Schwartz is the head of an association representing teachers in the German State of Rhineland-Palatinate.
She defended the teacher over her decision to take the large group on the hike.
Schwartz argued teachers were under high pressure to create an interesting and exciting variety of activities to their classes during trips abroad.
Schwartz added that many teachers would abstain from booking a local guide due to their limited budgets.
Thomas Wanner from the Austrian Alpine Union said the school must brace for a hefty bill if they did not care about getting special insurance.
Wanner explained: “Getting rescued with a chopper costs at least between EUR 3,000 and 5,000” (GBP 2,579 and 4,298; USD 3,165 and 5,275).
Vorarlberg is one of Austria’s nine states. The small mountainous region is situated in the very west of the Central European country. It shares borders with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany.
Vorarlberg is one of Austria’s top destinations for skiing enthusiasts from all over the world as well as for hikers and mountain cycling fans during summertime.