VIENNA, Austria (AP) – Gale-force winds dumping heavy snow caused havoc across Austria on Saturday, blowing cars across roads and into deadly collisions, knocking out power to thousands of homes and tearing a balcony off a building, that critically injured a man below.

Several hundred cars spun out of control and ended up in snowbanks along the north-south A2 highway, where visibility was poor as gusts exceeding 60 miles an hour blew snow into the air.

Authorities closed the A2 near the city of Graz for more than three hours after 12 inches of wind-whipped snow fell on the area. “It was a very serious situation. Even the firefighters had trouble driving through that weather,” said fire department spokesman Robert Karger.

The storm had at least one silver lining: Fresh snow in the alpine province of Tyrol helped police track down and arrest a 43-year-old suspected art thief from Germany. Gendarmes followed the man’s footprints after he fled on foot from a mountain hotel from which he allegedly stole two oil paintings, police said.

But the storm was disastrous on roads. Police reported numerous head-on collisions apparently caused when powerful gusts pushed cars over the center line and into oncoming traffic. In one accident, two minivans collided, killing a 32-year-old man and injured two young children, Austrian television said.

In the eastern province of Burgenland, a flower vendor’s van tumbled over an embankment, killing one of the passengers, an Egyptian national, and seriously injuring the two other occupants.

A wind gust tore a balcony off the third floor of a house in Graz, striking a 31-year-old workman from Bosnia and critically injuring him, Austrian radio said. The victim was hospitalized with serious head injuries.

Heavy winds were blamed for damage to homes, businesses and property across Austria, where thousands of households were without electricity overnight. Power was restored to most areas by midafternoon Saturday, officials said.

Wind ripped a large advertising billboard from its aluminum frame and sent it crashing down onto a street near the U.N. complex in Vienna, police said. No one was injured.

Firefighters in the southwestern province of Carinthia worked overnight to clear streets of debris and remove fallen trees from rooftops and overhead power lines. In Klagenfurt, the provincial capital, strong winds uprooted a tree that struck a utility worker as he was removing another fallen tree from a power cable, knocking him 33 feet to the ground. He suffered serious injuries and was taken by helicopter to a hospital.

At the St. Gilgen ski resort in Salzburg province, heavy winds prompted officials to cancel the gondola service shuttling skiers and snowboarders to the summit.

Local authorities also canceled a mountain rescue exercise, saying it was too windy to conduct the training.

AP-ES-11-20-04 1138EST

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