Tunnel bosses were warned

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The Independent Online
AUTHORITIES IN the Mont Blanc area were given a report last December concluding that the 34-year-old tunnel lacked vital access for firefighters and that the ventilation system was inadequate for the two million vehicles that use it each year.

It is just over a month since the prefect, or government representative on the French side of Mont Blanc, signed the safety certificate for the tunnel, despite the fact that the report described the tunnel as having "serious safety problems".

Kent Fire Brigade's Senior Divisional Officer and Commander of the Channel Tunnel station, Ian Muir, yesterday told The Independent how the French, Italian and Swiss firefighters would have gone about tackling the blaze, and why putting it out took so long.

Though he has yet to confer with his European colleagues, Mr Muir said that the lack of a separate access tunnel will have been the major obstacle."Large numbers of personnel and large amounts of equipment extended over a great distance make this a difficult operation. If it's very hot the turnover of personnel can be pretty quick," he said. In all tunnels there is a prevailing wind or breeze and firefighters enter the tunnel with this at their backs, Mr Muir said. "In a single bore [tunnel] the smoke has got to go in one direction, firefighters will come in behind that and form a bridgehead."

The firefighters will have found the nearest place to the fire from which it is safe to form this bridgehead, a base camp from which to liaise with the main command outside. "As well as an attack plan they will also have been looking for a withdrawal plan in case things go wrong," Mr Muir said.

The length of the tunnel is likely to have made this plan more difficult and forced the firefighters' bridgehead to be further away from the 1,000C fire than they would have wished.