Hurricane-force winds hit northern U.K.

(AP) - Hurricane-force winds and heavy downpours hammered northern Europe on Thursday, killing 27 people and disrupting travel for tens of thousands вЂ" including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose plane circled for 15 minutes before landing amid winds gusting to 77 mph.

The storms were among the fiercest in years, ripping off part of the roof at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, toppling a crane in the Netherlands and upending trucks on Europe's busiest highway.

By evening, weather-related accidents had killed 27 people, including a 2-year-old boy hit by falling brick from a toppled wall in London, reports Trend.

Rice cut short her visit to Berlin in order to leave for London before winds worsened, landing at Heathrow Airport in winds gusting up to 77 mph.

"It's not often you get winds of that sort of strength that far inland," said John Hammond of Britain's weather office. "(Rice) did well to land there, I wouldn't have fancied doing that."

German meteorologists recorded gusts up to 118 mph, forcing dozens of flight cancelations, shutting schools and prompting the national railroad to suspend services across a swath of the country.

"We are still at a standstill nationwide," with only a few trains running, Hans-Georg Zimmermann, the spokesman of the national railroad, Deutsche Bahn, told n-tv television.

Hartmut Mehdorn, chief executive of Deutsche Bahn, said: "We have never yet had such a situation in Germany."

At Berlin's central railway station, Luise Mazur Reinhold, 79, sat disconsolately on a bench.

"What should we do now? They threw us off the train 10 minutes ago," said Mazur, from southern Poland, who had hoped to travel to Hamburg to celebrate her husband's birthday with friends. "We had invited all these people to his 85th birthday, but now we just can't get there."

Traffic on the Eurostar, the train service connecting Britain with continental Europe through the Channel Tunnel, was suspended after an electrical cable holder fell onto the tracks near the northern French city of Lille, France's national railway company said.

In London, harried commuters struggled through road closures caused by falling debris blown from glass-paneled office buildings and medieval churches. The city's slender Millennium Bridge was closed after the suspension structure began swaying dangerously in the wind.

Rail stations across London also were closed, and the evening commute melted into chaos.

"First the buses couldn't cross the bridge because of the wind, and now this," said Paul Richards, 26, a real estate agent trying to reach London Bridge station.

He swore, and turned back to retrace his steps across the wind-swept bridge.

Traffic on the M-25 around London, the busiest highway in Europe, was backed up for miles after three trucks were knocked over by a single gust of wind at around 1 p.m.

Traffic accidents accounted for many of the fatalities. Ten deaths were reported in the United Kingdom while seven died in Germany; four in the Netherlands, three in the Czech Republic, two in Belgium and one in France.

In Amsterdam, bicyclists who ventured out despite warnings from the fire department were blown over or, in some cases, blown backward.

City workers trying to divert cars from fallen trees watched as the wind swept their traffic cones away. Amsterdam's historic canals were littered with trash barrels, toppled bikes and broken umbrellas.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, a construction crane toppled onto a university building, crumpling the roof and injuring six people.

Heathrow Airport, Europe's largest, canceled 280 flights. Other major airports вЂ" including Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam and Vienna вЂ" reported delays and cancellations.

At sea, coast guard ships and naval helicopters rescued the crew of a British container ship damaged and drifting in the English Channel.

In Ireland and Latvia, winds kept rescue crews from helping other ships damaged or missing after storms earlier this week. Seven fishermen from Ireland, Poland and Ukraine are missing and presumed dead off the Irish coast, while Latvian rescuers were unable to attempt to salvage a cargo ship that ran aground Tuesday off the Baltic port of Ventspils and has been leaking oil.

A ship burst loose from its moorings near Rotterdam and smashed an oil pipeline, leaking about 10,000 barrels of oil. The stench reached The Hague, 20 miles away.

Austria's national weather service said storm winds could reach 105 mph at higher altitudes in the Alps, and officials cautioned skiers and snowboarders to get off the mountains and seek shelter well before nightfall.

In western Austria, a power outage forced the closure of at least one major motorway tunnel. More than 20,000 homes were in the dark as well, the region's main power utility said.

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