On Thursday night, a series of cable cars traveling over the Mont Blanc Alpine Massif stopped working — leaving more than 100 tourists stranded, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
Helicopter crews managed to extract 65 of the trapped people in a delicate rescue operation. But by the time night fell the helicopters had to stop, leaving dozens more people, including a 10-year-old child, dangling in the gondolas overnight.
By morning, the cable car system had been repaired and the gondolas were sent into motion again. All the tourists are now safe, The Associated Press reports.
The cable car crosses between mountain peaks in France and Italy, near the towns of Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy.
"The panoramic cable cars rise to an altitude of 12,000 feet, and are operated in the summer season with large numbers of tourists and climbers," Eleanor says.
"The cable cars stopped working after their cables became crossed," she reports. "Officials believe strong winds may have caused the cables to become tangled."
That was around 4 p.m. local time. Helicopter rescue operations soon began — but they were risky, the AP reports:
" 'The extent of this rescue operation is simply unbelievable,' said Col. Frederic Labrunye, commander of the provincial gendarmerie group of Haute-Savoie. 'By the volume of people to rescue — we rarely rescue 110 people at the same time in high mountain — and by the environment in which it happens ... in the heart of one of the largest glaciers in Europe, over a distance of five kilometers of cable with 36 cabins.'
"Helicopters had to delicately fly over the cable, which is risky itself, then lower a rescuer on to an area 'not larger than a table,' strap on passengers one by one and extract them, he said, describing it as 'air surgery.' "
After helicopters were grounded, some people — those closest to the ground — were extracted by rescuers working from the glacier beneath them, the AP says.
The rest had to wait until morning.
It was a chilly night in the Alps, but the stranded tourists weren't alone as they waited out the high-altitude mishap.
"First aid workers bringing blankets and food spent the night in the gondolas with those trapped," Eleanor says.