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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2000

Deerfield son a fire victim in Austria

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

DEERFIELD, Mich. - Residents in this small village east of Blissfield were aware of the Austrian cable fire that killed 159 people Saturday.

But it was not until yesterday they began to learn that one of their native sons had died in that fire.

Paul Filkil, 46, and his 15-year-old son, Ben, were traveling with a ski club from the Kaiserslautern area, near the U.S. military's Ramstein Air Base, at the time of the accident. Mr. Filkil's wife, Karen Kearney Filkil, is a civilian who works for the Air Force's Warrior Preparation Center in Germany.

“Oh, no,” said Wesley Rickard of Deerfield when he learned of his childhood friend's death. “We were the best childhood buddies for the longest time.”

Mr. Filkil and his son were on a cable car that caught fire as it was pulled through an Alpine tunnel in the Kaprun, Austria, area. Passengers on the car and in the tunnel were trapped in the intense heat, and only 18 people survived.

Mr. Rickard said he last saw Paul Filkil several years ago at a local football game.

“He just had an energy about him,” Mr. Rickard said. “He was just so happy to see us. We lived real close to each other, played football in each other's backyard.

“We talked, and then these old macho '70s guys here did something four years ago we had never done. We embraced each other when we parted.”

U.S. military recovery teams worked throughout yesterday to identify bodies and collect the belongings of the missing.

Among the missing were 92 Austrians, 37 Germans, 10 Japanese, eight Americans, four Slovenes, two Dutch, one person from the Czech Republic and one person from Great Britain. Authorities had no nationalities for the remaining four people.

Most of the names of those who died had been listed by yesterday, mostly by eliminating those not accounted for among people skiing and snowboarding Saturday on the glacier slope.

But experts still needed to identify individual bodies, which could take up to four weeks, chief forensic pathologist Edith Tutsch-Bauer said.

The intensity of the fire left the bodies badly charred, and even tattoos and scars could no longer be seen, she added.

Salvage workers initially were able to recover only the bodies of those who had tried to escape from the train uphill but were felled on the steep steps by toxic smoke rushing through the tunnel.

Franz Lang, chief of Salzburg's criminal police, said large parts of the car had melted, making it difficult to remove many of the bodies.

Although Paul Filkil left Deerfield years ago, news of his death hit hard in this close-knit community.

His father, Paul Filkil, Sr., was a country doctor there for 40 years. The younger Paul Filkil's mother, Benja, now lives in Texas.

A weary Ryan Filkil, who identified himself as Paul Filkil's son, said his grandmother did not want to comment yesterday.

Ryan Filkil, who was visiting his grandmother in Texas, plans to meet with the State Department today before flying to Germany. He said his father had lived in Germany for 12 years.

“Deerfield's kind of a unique town; pretty much everybody knows everybody here,” said Franz Koch, who was in his first year of teaching at Deerfield High School when Paul Filkil was a student there.

“Paul was a very bright young man. He was very successful after he left here. It's such a tragedy. You never think that it's someone that you know,” he said.

Mr. Koch now lives in the one-story ranch home where Paul Filkil grew up. The maple trees young Paul planted with his mother still adorn the yard.

Mr. Filkil's classmates remember him well.

“He liked to have a good time and experience life,” said Bill Gainsley, who graduated from Deerfield High School with Mr. Filkil in a class of 38 students.

As a teen, Mr. Filkil ran track and played football in junior high. But friends best remember his energetic, spontaneous manner.

In his adult years, he turned his energy to skiing and running marathons.

“He was very spontaneous,” Mr. Rickard said. “When the mood moved him, it was hard to tell what would happen.''



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