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Three die in tunnel terror under Alps nightmare

ONLY THREE months after 42 people died in the Mont Blanc road tunnel fire, Austria has been rocked by an almost identical tragedy.

Three people were feared dead and 49 are being treated in hospital after a blaze in a tunnel near Salzburg.

Firefighters battled for 16 hours at the weekend to extinguish the blaze in the confined space of the Tauern tunnel, which was filled with holidaymakers' cars and haulage lorries. The cause has been identified as a lorry carrying paint-related chemicals, which was hit by another vehicle after stopping at roadworks inside the tunnel.

The resulting explosion, at 5am on Saturday, was 600 metres into the northern end of the tunnel. There were at least 60 vehicles in the tunnel.

Panic followed and eyewitnesses spoke of people refusing to leave their cars and even trying to turn them around and drive away from the smoke and flames.

Almost 70 people managed to escape on foot, emerging covered in soot and choking on thick smoke. Yesterday, 49 people were still in hospital receiving treatment for smoke inhalation.

Authorities have confirmed the dead man as a 27-year-old German lorry driver, Thomas Bernhard. He is said to have been overcome with smoke as he tried to run from the tunnel. His body was found 100 metres from an emergency phone box.

Franz Gruenkranz, 45, from Blindheim, Germany, got to an emergency station within the tunnel, protected from the heat and smoke. "I had already resigned myself to dying," said the lorry driver, who described seeing firemen running past the window of the booth.

Rescue attempts were slowed by the danger to firemen from falling lumps of the concrete ceiling which was damaged by the explosion, and temperatures which reached 1,000C.

Yesterday technicians were brought in to secure the tunnel and enable a criminal-technical investigation to be started today.

An Austrian official said that efforts to recover the 20 or so remaining vehicles would not be made until temperatures inside the tunnel had fallen.

The fire is provoking a dispute over transport policy in Austria, a country that boasts of its Green-influenced transport policies. The leader of Salzburg regional parliament, Franz Schausberger, of the conservative Austrian People's Party said: "The Mont Blanc tunnel is in the same position we are [with the Tauern tunnel]. They tried to build a second tunnel 10 years ago but had to give up the plans for environmental reasons."

His party has blamed the disaster on the fact that the Tauern - like Mont Blanc - tunnel is a single-bore design and demanded that all Austrian tunnels be upgraded to dual-bore.

Madeleine Petrovic, the Green Party leader, said ministers had not told the truth after the Mont Blanc fire, when the public was told no new single-bore tunnels were being constructed in Austria.

In fact, said Ms Petrovic, seven such tunnels were being built.

Concern is focusing on the Brenner Pass, which connects Italy and Austria. There are fears that if the Tauern tunnel is closed during the summer, traffic will be diverted over the Brenner, a heavily loaded stretch of road in an environmentally sensitive area.