CHEVALINE, France (AP) — Immobilized with fear, a 4-year-old British girl huddled for eight hours beneath the legs of her slain mother in the back of a car filled with corpses on a remote Alpine road — all while French investigators stood nearby, unaware the girl was there.
The stunning discovery Thursday of the girl, apparently unharmed, heightened the drama around a mysterious shooting rampage that left four adults dead and a 7-year-old girl hospitalized with bullet wounds and skull fractures. The reason for the killing, in a wooded area near the village of Chevaline, remains unclear.
All were found in or near a BMW that prosecutors say belonged to a British family vacationing at a campground on the shores of Lake Annecy, a popular retreat in the French Alps. The owners of the campground told investigators the victims included two parents and a grandmother.
A cyclist stumbled across the grisly scene Wednesday, and police arrived to find a man's body in the front seat and two women in the back, and a dead cyclist with no known ties to the other victims nearby. The 7-year-old girl was discovered near the car with bullet wounds and skull fractures and was hospitalized, Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud said. Her identity was unclear.
French authorities struggled to explain why the 4-year-old wasn't discovered earlier and was left for hours alone on the back seat of a car with two corpses, apparently those of her mother and grandmother.
Maillaud said, "we discovered a little 4-year-old girl that no one noticed earlier because she wasn't moving. Probably terrified, she was completely immobile among the bodies. She was later examined and she is doing okay.
"She is in a hospital but her life is not threatened despite going through a tragedy by losing her family in such atrocious conditions," he said
Maillaud said as soon as investigators opened the door, the girl emerged, smiled and reached out her arms; she was speaking English but couldn't describe what had happened. She was taken into police care.
The man who discovered the bodies alerted authorities around 4 p.m. Wednesday; the car was under guard until midnight, when special investigators arrived from the Paris area.
"Firefighters, technicians, doctors looked inside the car through the windows but they didn't see the little girl. The child, terrorized, never moved. She stayed beneath her mother's legs," Lt. Col. Benoit Vinnemann said, according to BFM-TV.
Maillaud said the cyclist who found the bodies saw "a man on the right side, on the driver's side since it is a car with British plates. The man seems dead to him as well as the two women in the back. He doesn't see anything else. So when the rescue teams and the police arrive we have five persons: four dead adults and a seriously injured child who is evacuated."
The French cyclist found dead next to the car had no ties to the British family; he was identified only after his wife reported him missing.
"A woman was worried because her husband went to cycle in this area and didn't come back home," Maillaud said. "He was just cycling in that area and got killed along with this British family."
Police cordoned off the area, combing the forest for potential perpetrators and waiting for forensic experts to arrive.
About 15 bullet casings were found near the car, Maillaud said.
Police vehicles have barricaded the road about 3 kilometers (1.5 miles) from where the bodies were found and say searches continued Thursday in the surrounding forest.
The names of the victims were not released. The British Foreign Office said it is aware of the incident and is looking into it.
Lori Hinnant in Paris and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.