FARKASLYUK, Hungary (Reuters) - Hungarian villagers were scavenging for coal with their bare hands on Thursday as a blast of Siberian air killed scores in Eastern Europe and looked set to keep its icy grip on the continent for another week.
At least 139 people have died across Eastern Europe and Germany since the cold snap began, interrupting what had been an unusually mild European winter.
In the Hungarian village of Farkaslyuk, people clambered up a 30-metre spoil heap from a disused mine to scrape together enough coal to heat their homes and cook for a few days.
“This saves us from going to prison,” said Jozsef Bari, a Roma and father of three who used to work in the mine, standing in a three-meter-deep pit dug in the slag heap.
“If we had not had this, we could all go to steal wood (in the forest), and then we would all be chased (by police).”
Temperatures in the mountains near Farkaslyuk, meaning “wolf’s den,” have fallen to minus 22 Celsius (minus 8 Fahrenheit).
The cold snap for central Europe is expected to continue through the week and beyond as an area of high pressure camps over Russia, pushing cold dry air southwards, said German meteorologist Helmut Malewski.
In Ukraine, the country worst hit by the cold snap, schools shut and supermarkets in the capital, Kiev, began to report food shortages as delivery trucks struggled in temperatures as low as minus 25C (minus 13F). Twenty died there in the space of 24 hours, taking the overall toll to 63, many of them homeless.
The Red Cross said it was releasing funds to build shelters for street-dwellers in Belarus and Ukraine, echoing a similar move by governments across the region.
“Homeless people have been caught unawares and unprepared. They don’t follow long-range forecasts and are extremely vulnerable,” said Zlatko Kovac of the Red Cross.
Snow drifts blocking roads and runways, ice seizing up railway points and sub-zero temperatures freezing fuel and car batteries caused more transport misery.
In the Serbian region of Ivanjica, schoolchildren rode to school on horseback and villagers used the animals to fetch supplies. Residents said they feared wolves would begin to venture into residential areas in search of food.
Europe’s weather warning service, Meteoalarm, maintained its red alert warning for Serbia, where 11,000 people in rural areas remained cut off by snow.
“It was so cold ... that several of our chickens and turkeys froze to death,” said farmer Milan Radojcic, in the southwestern village of Sadljike. “The eggs in the chicken coop were frozen solid.”
Helicopters flew rescue missions to evacuate the elderly and dispatch supplies as 30 cm (12 inches) of fresh snow fell overnight in neighboring Bosnia, where the mercury touched minus 29C (minus 20F) on Wednesday.
Croatia’s coastal resorts received an unusual covering of snow but in Romania, boats that had been locked rigid in the frozen Black Sea were able to sail again. In the capital, Bucharest, temperatures remained bitter, offering Emil Boc’s government some respite as protesters who have rallied against austerity for weeks stayed indoors.
Temperatures in parts of northern Slovakia dipped to their lowest level in 50 years.
In Azerbaijan in the south Caucasus, heavy snow blocked main roads, Baku international airport postponed all flights and major newspapers said they would not publish Friday’s edition.
Western Europe was also braced for a bitter chill, as the cold front moved westwards.
In Italy, Florence and Siena nestled under a rare blanket of snow, a scene forecasters say could be repeated in Rome later this week. The mayor of Rome ordered all schools to be closed on Friday and Saturday.
Near Bologna, rail passengers were stuck on a train after overhead wires froze. A second train sent to rescue them suffered the same fate and it took rescuers seven hours to free cold and angry travelers. At the nearby Maranello test track, Ferrari was forced to cancel the launch of its 2012 Formula One car due to icy conditions.
Austria’s OeAMTC automobile club said the number of calls it had received from motorists in trouble tripled in some parts.
But in Germany, rubbish collectors carried on regardless through minus 15 Celsius (minus 5F).
“When you haven’t really started to work yet and ... you jump up on the step for the first time, that is pretty unpleasant,” bin man Stefan Rauchhaus told Reuters TV. “The more you work, the warmer you get, then it’s ok.”
German car maker BMW issued an embarrassed apology when a publicity stunt for the forthcoming launch of its new range went wrong. Having bought the right to name a weather front “Cooper,” BMW found the name had been allocated to the icy blasts now sweeping Europe.
BMW “regrets very much” that the “Cooper” front was inflicting “catastrophic” damage and causing many deaths, a company spokeswoman said.
Britain’s Met Office put the whole of England on a level 3 alert - the second highest - for severe cold weather through to Sunday, though a tussle between warmer Atlantic air to the west and the Siberian system to the east made forecasts uncertain.
France put around a quarter of its administrative departments on orange alert and snow fell as far south as the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
In Brussels, the iconic 400-year-old ‘Manneken-Pis’ statue of a young boy urinating had to be switched off because of fears that ice could damage its internal mechanisms.
Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Matt Robinson in Belgrade, Jason Hovet in Prague, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michael Shields in Vienna, Martin Santa in Batislava, Ioana Patran in Bucharest, Philip Pullella in Rome, Richard Balmforth in Ukraine, Gabriela Baczynska in Poland, Alice Baghdjian in Berlin, Ben Harding in London; and Alexandria Sage in Paris; Writing by Ben Harding; Editing by Kevin Liffey