Three people have been killed, including two pupils, after a deadly avalanche struck a ski resort in the French Alps, leaving up to 20 missing and others seriously injured.
The snow slide hit skiers, including a group of 19 students and their teacher, in Les Deux Alpes in eastern France at 4pm today.
They were skiing on a black run called Bellecombe that had been closed since the beginning of the ski season in December for safety reasons.
A 14-year-old boy was killed in the avalanche and a girl, 16, later died in hospital of her injuries. Three other people have been seriously injured.
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Tragedy: Rescue teams are on the scene following the avalanche in Les Deux Alpes resort in eastern France
Rescue mission: Up to 100 people were tonight accompanied by sniffer dogs as they tried to find the missing
Dozens of emergency workers swarmed the black piste while three search dogs hunted for any other victims
A Ukrainian adult, who was not part of the group, was also killed, police said.
Three of the pupils, who were from the Saint-Exupery school in Lyon, were found in an unresponsive state and their teacher was pulled unconscious from the snow. The others escaped unhurt.
‘In theory, we have retrieved everyone on the school trip, but the search is continuing to ensure there are no other victims,’ said local government official Jean-Paul Bonnetain.
France’s National Gendarmerie said a search and rescue operation had been launched at the resort – 20 miles south-east of Grenoble.
Dozens of emergency workers swarmed the black piste – the highest difficulty rating in France – while three search dogs hunted for any other victims.
Three helicopters hovered above the resort, one of them equipped with a thermal camera to try and track any survivors under the snow.
However, the search is being hampered by the dark and the continuing danger of more avalanches.
France’s National Gendarmerie said the search and rescue operation was launched after the avalanche
Warnings: The school group was skiing on a closed black run called Bellecombe, despite advice to stay away
FOUR DEATHS IN THE FRENCH ALPS THIS MONTH
Four people have died in avalanches in the French alps this month alone.
A Spaniard died while skiing off piste in Val d’Isere, where 50cm of fresh snow has fallen in the past seven days, on January 5. The 37-year-old was quickly dug out of the snow but could not be resuscitated.
A second, a 30-year-old skier from the Czech Republic, was killed on the same day at Saint-Colomban-des-Villards when he went off piste in the Les Sybelles area.
On January 3, two Lithuanian mountain climbers also died in an avalanche above Argentiere in Chamonix.
‘The avalanche was 20 metres wide… and 300 metres long,’ said Dominique Letang of the National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches.
‘It was 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 added.
Letang said it is ‘infuriating’ that skiers are taking risks, adding: ‘This piste was not open because there was not enough snow. It was not skiable.
‘What is surprising is the number of people involved, even though we keep on saying that they must take it one at a time when the snow cover is unstable.’
The north facing Bellecombe run was considered ‘extremely perilous’ at the time of the avalanche, said a source in Les Deux Alpes.
‘It’s dangerous enough when open, but nobody should have been anywhere near it today,’ they said.
The prefect of the Isere region told BFM-TV the trail had been closed since the beginning of the ski season in December.
Jean-Paul Bonnetain said the group leader ‘had taken the initiative’ to lead the school group onto this piste.
He said that the run ‘was really of a technical level’ that is not suitable for beginners or school students aged 16 and 17.
Local councilor Gilles Strappazzon told BFM-TV the avalanche occurred after several groups of skiers dislodged a large snow slab.
French police official, Commander Bertrand Host told BMF-TV there had been an avalanche warning in the area before the snow slide. It is unclear why the group ventured onto the ski trail.
French President Francois Hollande has sent his condolences to those close to the victims.
Hollande said in a statement on Wednesday evening that the French education minister is on his way to Lyon, the home city of the affected high schoolchildren.
He is expected to arrive in the coming hours to ‘support the school community and the families’.
A telephone crisis center has been set up for relatives and friends at the school, which serves more than 2,000 middle school and high school students.
The avalanche hit a group of students from Lyon and their teacher in Les Deux Alpes resort in eastern France
The Grenoble prosecutor has ordered a judicial inquiry to be opened into the tragedy.
The French Alps are on high alert following recent heavy snowfall, with four people killed by avalanches in early January alone.
In Val d’Isere, where 50cm of fresh snow has fallen in the past seven days, a Spaniard died while skiing off piste on January 5.
On the same day, a 30-year-old skier from the Czech Republic was killed at Saint-Colomban-des-Villards when he went off piste in the Les Sybelles area.
On January 3, two Lithuanian mountain climbers were also killed in an avalanche above Argentiere in Chamonix.
In the Savoie region of the French Alps, mountain police were called to eight separate avalanche incidents on Tuesday alone.
After a slow start to the season, as much as 60cm of new snow has been dumped on French ski resorts in the past week, with the latest snow forecasts predicting more is still to come.
Chamonix-based mountain guide Andy Perkins told MailOnline: ‘In December, it was very cold and very dry, which created very sugary snow crystals. Then this week there’s been a lot of snow and a lot of wind.
Weather forecasts had warned skiers that there would be sparse snow in the Alpine regions this winter season, pushing many holidaymakers to higher resorts such as Les Deux Alpes
‘Then if people stand on this wind-packed snow, it creates an avalanche. Some 90 per cent of people caught in an avalanche triggered it themselves.’
Mr Perkins added: ‘I wouldn’t tell people to stay off the slopes but if you are going to go off piste or ski on a closed run, you need to have training in avalanche awareness. Precautions have to be taken.’
Val d’Isère Tourist Board issued a statement urging people to avoid off piste areas.
‘The current avalanche risk is four, on a scale of five,’ it read. ‘Our recommendation is not to go off piste until the risk level has dropped.
‘The fresh snow cover is not stable and too wet because of the high temperatures – slope conditions are variable across the ski area because of strong winds.
‘We advise people to wait at least three days after the risk level is reduced to ski this powder until it is more compacted.’
At least 45 people died in snow slides during the 2014/2015 winter season in France, according to the National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches, more than double the previous year.
TEMPERATURE SET TO FALL AS LOW AS -10C TONIGHT AND HEAVY SNOWFALL TOMORROW WILL HINDER SEARCH EFFORTS
The temperature at Les Deux Alpes resort is forecast to fall as low as -10C tonight, as the search party continues to hunt for the missing schoolchildren.
Heavy snowfall is also expected on Thursday morning – another 6cm – with temperatures falling well below freezing, to as low as -14C on Thursday evening.
Weather forecasts had warned skiers that there would be sparse snow in the Alpine regions this winter season, pushing many holidaymakers to higher resorts such as Les Deux Alpes, Chamonix (where the top runs rise to 12,608ft), Tignes and Val d’Isere.
While Les Deux Alpes village sits at 1,650m, lifts run to as high as 3,600m, and the resort is known for good snow coverage even when resorts lower down the mountains are struggling.
But snow began falling fast across the Alps in the first week of January, which has led to increasingly dangerous conditions in the region.
Four people have already died in avalanches in the Alps since the beginning of January.
Les Deux Alpes has the largest skiable glacier in Europe and is France’s second oldest ski resort behind Chamonix.