COURMAYEUR (Italy) • More than 30 tourists who spent a dramatic night stranded in cable cars above the French Alps were brought to the ground yesterday after an 18-hour ordeal, operators said.
They were the last of 110 sightseers trapped when the cable cars ground to a halt on Thursday afternoon in the shadow of Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak.
After a night in the frozen dark dangling at an altitude of 3,800m, the string of cars lurched into movement at about 8am local time.
The incident was caused by cables that became crossed for "unknown reasons", but a gust of wind was believed to have played a part, said Mr Mathieu Dechavanne, head of the Mont-Blanc Company that manages the system.
The cars were restarted after the last cable was untangled, he said. The 33 remaining passengers were able to reach the ground by exiting the cars at three points on the way down.
Teams on Thursday had been able to rescue 77 passengers, most of them by helicopters and others who were able to climb down with help.
But as darkness fell and the weather deteriorated, the rescue operation was suspended, leaving the remaining tourists, one of them a 12-year-old boy, to spend the night suspended in mid-air.
It was terrible. My brother had to stay up there with my parents and they were only wearing sweatshirts. When the sun set, it was cold.
MARIA ELENA PERRONE, an Italian tourist whose 12-year-old brother had to spend the night suspended in mid-air.
The boy's sister, Italian tourist Maria Elena Perrone, 18, was rescued on Thursday but then had an agonising wait for news of her brother and parents who were in a different cable car.
"It was terrible. My brother had to stay up there with my parents and they were only wearing sweatshirts. When the sun set, it was cold," she said, sobbing. "For 2½ hours we didn't know what had happened, and the cable car was moving a lot when they were trying to untangle the cables."
An elderly man was treated for hypothermia but all the passengers trapped overnight in the small four-person pods were in good condition despite their ordeal, police said.
"We were in contact with them throughout the night, the people were cold", but there did not appear to be any health emergencies, local police chief Stephane Bozon said.
"The last hour seemed very, very long. We called the operators who explained that three cables got snarled up and they had to be untangled but they didn't manage to do it," a man who was one of the first tourists to be rescued told French radio.
The top official in the Haute-Savoie region, Mr Georges- François Leclerc, said rescuers had been forced to halt their operation at 8.45pm on Thursday as they could not "guarantee the safety of the pilots, rescuers and the people stuck in the cars".
During the night, a team of rescuers - three French and two Italian police officers - also attempted to reach the trapped tourists. One of the officers managed to get into the car where the 12-year-old boy was. The trapped passengers had access to emergency blankets, energy bars and bottles of water, which are stocked aboard the cars.
The 5km-long system, which began operations in 1950, connects Aiguille du Midi on the French side of the mountains with Pointe Helbronner on the Italian border, offering panoramic views of Mont Blanc.
On the most eye-catching part of the trip, the cars are a dizzying 400m above ground.