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Teacher faces manslaughter probe over French Alps avalanche tragedy

Philippe Desmazes / AFP | A photo taken on January 14, 2016 shows a view of avalanche defence structures on the slopes at the Deux Alpes resort

A teacher who led a group of students onto a closed slope in the French Alps where an avalanche killed two of them is being investigated for manslaughter, prosecutors said Thursday.


The teacher cannot be taken into custody "for the time being" because he was seriously injured in Wednesday's accident and is in hospital in the south-central city of Grenoble, prosecutor Jean-Yves Coquillat told a news conference.

A 16-year-old girl died on the spot in the avalanche at the Deux Alpes ski resort, while a 14-year-old boy died later in hospital. A Ukrainian man who was not part of the school group also died.

The piste where the avalanche took place had been closed all season because of a lack of snow. However, heavy snowfall in recent days has blanketed the mountains, prompting authorities to warn of a high risk of avalanches across the French Alps.

The piste, which is at an altitude of some 2,500 metres (7,000 feet), is rated "black" – France’s highest difficulty rating.

“A judicial inquiry will say why the teacher who was himself injured took (the group) onto a piste which was not open,” French Minister for Youth and Sports Patrick Kanner told reporters in the wake of the tragedy.

“How can you think of taking children, following periods of heavy snowfall, onto a piste which was closed?”

The avalanche risk level on Wednesday at the resort was three on a scale of five – meaning a single skier can set off a snowslide, said Dominique Letang, director of the National Agency for the Study of Snow and Avalanches (ANENA).

“In 90 percent of cases, it’s the action of a human being that causes an avalanche,” Letang said, noting that when the risk stands at five, skiing areas are closed.

He described the avalanche as “a typical case of a slab of snow formed by the heavy winds in recent days. Fresh snow did not attach enough” to the older layer, he said.

‘Foolhardy risks‘

The skiing season got off to a slow start in France as unseasonably warm temperatures left slopes bare over the festive season, with skiers and snowboarders having to make do with artificial snow until the recent snowfall.

Local mayor Stephane Sauvebois said “foolhardy risks were taken” when the group ventured onto the closed piste.

Top local government administrator Jean-Paul Bonnetain added: “No one can argue that he didn’t know they were on a closed piste.”

Outside the students’ school in Lyon, some 110 kilometres (70 miles) from the site of the disaster, dozens of candles were lit alongside notes such as: “Thoughts with the students and pupils” and “Thoughts with the families, stay strong.”

Students at the school were incredulous over the tragedy.

“We’re still in shock,” said one who gave his name as Alain. “This outing takes place several times a year, with the same instructors, and there have never been any problems.”

Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem visited the school late Wednesday, saying a grief counselling centre would be available there for “as long as needed”.

Four other people have died since January in avalanches in the French Alps – two Lithuanian mountain climbers and two skiers from Spain and the Czech Republic.

Dozens die each year in avalanches in France’s popular ski resorts. At least 45 people died in snowslides during the 2014-15 winter season in France, according to ANENA, more than double the previous year.

Avalanches, which can see snow rushing down the mountainside at up to 200 kilometres (120 miles) per hour, can be triggered by several factors such as heavy rain, strong winds and the state of the soil beneath the snow.

The deadliest avalanche in France’s history occurred in 1970 when 39 people were killed when their chalet was hit by an avalanche at the Val d’Isere ski resort.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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