Dozens Rescued Near Chamonix, France, After Night Stranded in Cable Cars

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by CLAUDIO LAVANGA, EMMANUELLE SALIBA and NANCY ING – (NBC News) - Dozens of tourists were rescued Friday after spending up to 16 hours trapped in cable cars dangling high above the French Alps, officials said.

More than 100 people, including several Americans, were left hanging in 36 gondolas following a malfunction between two mountains near the Chamonix ski resort.

Italian officials involved in the rescue said around 70 of those trapped were rescued on Thursday night, either lifted by helicopter or belayed up to 300 feet to the ground. But around 30 others — including a 10-year-old child — were forced to spend the night after the rescue was stopped by fog.

Another 14 were freed after conditions improved early Friday, before the problem was fixed at around 8:30 a.m. local time (2:30 a.m. ET) and the cars were rolled back down the mountain, according to Walter Milan, spokesman for Italy's mountain rescue service.

"We were there almost 10 hours in the cable car," Kathy Cook, an American tourist from Michigan, told The Associated Press after she was among the first group to be lowered to the ground. "It was just before midnight when they finally belayed us out of the gondolas which was really quite an experience."

Helicopters had to fly over the cable, which was risky in itself, then lower rescuers on to an area "not larger than a table," Col. Frederic Labrunye, commander of the provincial gendarmerie, told the AP. The crews then had to strap themselves to passengers and rescue them one by one — something Labrunye described as "air surgery."

The cable cars joined the mountains of Aiguille du Midi and Pointe Helbronner at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. Emergency workers spent the night with the stranded stranded tourists, giving them blankets, warm clothing and food.

Mathieu Dechavanne, president of the company running the cable cars, said a tow cable crossed over the main support cable in three places — a common occurrence — but this time it stalled the cars because the tangles couldn't immediately be fixed at all three points.

"This worked in two places, but unfortunately not in the third, and taking into account the fact that time was passing and in line with procedures, we decided to alert our emergency services to carry out a helicopter rescue," he said.

Some of the people were trapped for 16 hours, authorities confirmed.