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Helicopter pilot may face manslaughter charges

A helicopter pilot could face manslaughter charges after heavy cloud meant he failed to realise how high they were when he released a rope - and dropped a mountain rescue expert to his death.

Alpine policeman Franz Franzeskon, 52, and two colleagues were being lowered on a harness in a bid to rescue a 40-year-old climber trapped on the Grossvenediger mountain range in Austria's East Tyrol on Sunday.

But when freak high winds set in the pilot, who has not been named, released them onto the rock strewn ice face alongside the crevass below, apparently not realising how high they were.

Instead of a few feet the three fell 10 meters (32 feet), leaving Franzeskon dead and the two others critically injured.

Now the local public prosecutor in Innsbruck has opened an inquiry into the accident, investigating whether the pilot was to blame for the death.

'They apparently misjudged the distance they still had to go and fell some way on to rocks,' said one official.

Experts have established there was no technical problems with the helicopter.

Franzeskon died instantly in the fall while the two others suffered multiple injuries. One of the men has been allowed to leave the hospital but the other is suffering from multiple injuries and is an artificial coma after undergoing surgery for broken bones and internal injuries. Lienz hospital spokesman Alfred Fast said: "He responded well to the operation and is now in an artificial sleep."

Officials called off the original hunt for the climber at the time - his body was recovered late yesterday (Monday). Police said the man had been completely wedged headfirst into the glacier around 120 feet into the ice. They were forced to use a pneumatic hammer to widen the gap, and remove the body.

Franzeskon was the head of the local Alpine police force and his friend and regional police boss Helmut Tomac said: "A day like this one is the sort of day that you always have nightmares about. You hope the day like this will never happen."

He said the dead man had been a valuable asset to the force and a good friend.

The owner of the helicopter firm, Roy Knauss, has already been interviewed by police who want to know why the helicopter pilot released the rope. He told officers that the pilot had extensive experience in difficult flying conditions.

He said: "I have spoken to him. He was taking the rescuers to the ground when the clouds suddenly robbed him of vision. It was a dangerous situation and the information he had from them is that they were only 5 m above the ground. He decided to drop the helicopter 5 m and release them rather than put all four of them in danger."

Inspector Sylvester Wolsegger from the police force in Lienz who is heading the investigation said: "We can definitively rule out that there was a technical problem with the helicopter."

But he added that up until now they have not had any information from the pilot: "The man was up until now not yet ready to make a statement."

An expert report has also been commissioned.

Prosecutor Hansjörg Mayr declined to comment more other than to say: "He is facing potential manslaughter charges."

The Grossvenediger mountain lies at 3,657 metres and is Austria's fourth highest peak on the border of Salzburg and East Tyrol. It is the second time this month that rescue workers have been called into action to assist in a rescue on the mountain.

A spokesman for the Alpine police Norbert Zobel said that the safety of the rescuers was always paramount – but added that when it was still possible to save a life rescuers would often push things to the limit.

He said: "If we are talking about a dead body, then certainly there wouldn't be such risks taken."

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