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Gun salute, lack of snow barriers blamed for Quebec avalanche

Officials failed to build snow barriers on the hill looming over the Quebec school where an avalanche killed nine revelers at a New Year's party _ even though another torrent of snow had crashed down in the Inuit village three years before, the school's principal said Saturday.

Principal Jean Leduc, who was one of more than 400 people in the gym when tons of snow rumbled down the sheer face of a nearby 500-foot hill early Friday, said an inquiry commissioned by the school board after the earlier avalanche had recommended that fences be built.

Leduc said the safety measure probably would have been costly, but he didn't know why it wasn't carried out.

"A lot of people have this question in their mind now, and rightly so," he said.

Later Saturday, 10 other buildings were ordered evacuated as snow accumulated on the face of the hill. Public Securities Minister Serge Menard said another, smaller avalanche could occur.

Nearly everyone in the village of 600 was relaxing in the gym after a square dance when a wall of their building smashed.

Tons of snow filled the gym, burying partygoers in up to 10 feet of powder and killing nine people _ five under the age of 8.

"It was like an explosion," Leduc said. "You heard an immense crack and the wall was flying into pieces and, the next thing you knew, the gym was entirely covered in snow.

"People were looking for their kids, their husbands, wives and parents."

Speculation on the cause of the avalanche centered on a ceremonial gun salute at midnight, 90 minutes before the avalanche. Some wondered if music from the dance had played a role.

Quebec provincial police said they planned to investigate where and how many shots had been fired. Police and avalanche experts also were to travel to the village to investigate.

The avalanche injured 25 in the village about 950 miles northeast of Montreal.

Twenty-three of the injured were reported in satisfactory condition. Two men were in critical condition in a Montreal hospital.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressed his condolences and applauded the village rescue effort.

"They braved extreme weather conditions to rush to the aid of their neighbors. Their prompt action no doubt saved many lives," he said.