French Alps cable cars tourists rescued

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Tourists rescued from Mont Blanc cable car

At least 33 tourists who spent a cold Thursday night trapped in several cable cars high above the French Alps have been rescued, officials say.

The tourists were suspended above the glaciers of Mont Blanc at an altitude of about 3,800m (12,468ft) after wires carrying the cars became tangled.

They were among 110 people initially trapped when the cable cars ground to a halt on Thursday afternoon.

The cars are believed to have stopped after cables tangled in high winds.

Those trapped overnight were freed on Friday after rescuers managed to restart the cars by relaxing the tension of tangled cables.

Image source, AP
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Rescued tourists described their ordeal to journalists on Friday morning
Image source, AFP
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Rescuers had to brave several hazards during the course of the operation

Late on Thursday 48 people had been lifted from the cable cars by helicopter, while about 30 travelling in cars closest to the ground had been able to climb down with the help of rescuers using ropes.

Those rescued on Thursday night described a difficult rescue operation amid intense cold.

"The cable car left about 2:30 in the afternoon and it was just before midnight when they finally brought us out of the gondolas,'' US tourist Kathy Cook said.

"The helicopter rescue failed because the fog moved in, so we had to just wait and then they decided they could bring us safely to the ground, and we walked up the glacier to the hut,'' she said.

Another rescued tourist told French radio: "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."

Local policeman Col Frederic Labrunye told AFP news agency: "The extent of this rescue operation is simply unbelievable.'' He said rescuers had to deal with 36 stranded cable cars over a distance of 5km (3.1 miles).

Col Labrunye said helicopters had to negotiate their way over cables then lower a rescuer onto an area "not larger than a table'', strap on passengers individually and extract them, describing the operation as "air surgery".

Image source, AP
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French, Italian and Swiss crews took part in the rescue operation

As darkness fell with the weather getting worse, the rescue operation was suspended leaving 33 tourists, one of them a 10-year-old, forced to spend the night suspended in mid-air.

Rescuers provided blankets, food and water to help them brave chilly mountain night-time conditions.

Image source, AFP
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The cable cars offer tourists a panoramic view of Mont Blanc (file photo)
Image source, AP
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Rescued passengers were seen arriving at a cable car station in Courmayeur, Italy, on Thursday

Mathieu Dechavanne, the head of the cable car company, said it appeared that cables had crossed over "for unexplained reasons" but probably because of strong gusts of wind.

French, Italian and Swiss teams took part in rescue efforts.

The cable cars connect the Aiguille du Midi peak in France, at 3,842m (12,605ft), to Pointe Helbronner in Italy, at 3,462m (11,358ft) and offer a panoramic view of Mont Blanc.