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Mass of rock slides down Swiss mountainside above evacuated village, narrowly missing settlement

KIFI

By GEIR MOULSON
Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — A huge mass of rock slid down a mountainside above a Swiss village that was evacuated last month, stopping just short of the settlement, which remained unscathed, relieved local officials said Friday.

Some 1.9 million cubic meters (67 million cubic feet) of rock had been deemed at risk of breaking away — and potentially of destroying the village of Brienz, in the southeastern Graubuenden region of Switzerland.

Brienz was evacuated on May 12 after geologists warned that the Alpine rock looming over the village could break loose. In recent days, local officials said rock movements on the slope were accelerating.

Much of the rock mass tumbled toward Brienz between 11 p.m. and midnight on Thursday night, the local council said. It added that there was no damage to the village and the rockslide stopped just short of it, leaving a “meters-high deposit” in front of the school building.

About two-thirds of the rock — at an initial estimate, somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million cubic meters (42.4 and 53 million cubic feet) — appears to have come down the slope on Thursday night, geologist Stefan Schneider said at a news conference.

“This is very good news, because the danger … to the village has become much smaller,” he added.

“We can say that today is one of the best days since the evacuation,” said Daniel Albertin, the head of the local council. “The wait for the mountain was long. But now the mountain has come down as we envisioned, and … a great deal has come down, but nothing is damaged in the village and no inhabitants were harmed.”

However, officials couldn’t yet say when they might be able to end the evacuation — although they said the chances of a permanent return are very high.

“The people of Brienz will still have to be a bit patient before they can move back,” Albertin said. “We have to carry out further evaluations before we can give them enough security to be able to move back to their village and continue living or working there.”

Authorities stepped the alert level up another notch after the rockslide as a precaution because they couldn’t immediately assess in the darkness what was happening, closing more local roads and a railway line and evacuating three houses in a neighboring village. But they reversed that on Friday lunchtime.

The rockslide came a bit over a week after residents of Brienz were allowed to make their first visits back to the village since the evacuation to retrieve essential items from their houses. Only two people per household were allowed in for 90-minute visits.

Officials said at the time of the evacuation that residents would be able to return from time to time, depending on the risk level, but not stay overnight. Located at an altitude of some 1,150 meters (about 3,800 feet), the village has under 100 residents.

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