A burst tyre, a head-on crash and how a busy tunnel turned into an inferno

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The Independent Online

It was one of those freak accidents. A burst tyre, a lorry veers out of control, another lorry bearing down fast from the opposite direction tries to get out of the way but has nowhere to go. On a normal road, the inevitable head-on collision might have claimed the lives of the two drivers.

It was one of those freak accidents. A burst tyre, a lorry veers out of control, another lorry bearing down fast from the opposite direction tries to get out of the way but has nowhere to go. On a normal road, the inevitable head-on collision might have claimed the lives of the two drivers.

But this accident occurred, just before 10 am on Wednesday morning, in the world's second longest road tunnel. Eleven people were confirmed dead last night, and another 128 were missing. The Gotthard tunnel, the pride of Swiss civil engineering and only two decades old, has just entered the list of those death traps that are becoming all too familiar to European motorists.

Rescuers had been working night and day, battling heat and acrid smoke as they inched towards the site of the collision, a mile from the southern end of the tunnel.

They doused a section 250 metres long with water cannons to cool it down from the infernal temperatures of 1,100 degrees Celsius to something approaching normality. By late afternoon, 30 hours after the original collision, they had succeeded.

They were still little wiser about the magnitude of the disaster, however. In thick fumes still oozing from the lorry that had been carrying tyres, they crept towards the twisted hulks of cars stranded just a mile from daylight.

Much of the roof cladding had peeled away in the intense heat, burying vehicles in fallen masonry. There might be as few as 15 cars under the rubble, officials ventured, or as many as 40.

Firefighters had made three attempts overnight to put out the blaze, but were driven back by the heat. In their first foray into the blazing bowels of the Alps, they located the bodies of nine men and one woman. Nearly all the victims died of suffocation from fumes.

Most of the bodies were found on the road, while the others were still in their cars. The scene that confronted rescue workers was according to one, reminiscent of Pompeii, with bodies covered in soot and ash seemingly frozen into their seats. The vehicles bore Swiss, German and Italian license plates.

Choking smoke had felled some fleeing travellers just metres from safety, as the heat fused cars and lorries into a mass of molten scrap. But some did mange to escape, including, miraculously, the driver of one of the two lorries that unleashed the chain of cataclysmic events.

Bruno Saba, who drove the lorry loaded with the tyres that so quickly turned into an impenetrable poison cloud, said he could see the accident looming.

"I was coming towards the end of the tunnel and about 250 meters away I saw a truck zigzagging to the right and to the left. I pushed myself over to the left, but he hit me and we crashed," he said.

Mr Saba escaped with minor injuries. The driver of the other lorry is thought to be dead.

"I got out of the cab and told people to get back out of the tunnel," Mr Saba added. "I was carrying tyres but they hadn't caught fire yet. I supposed that they would. In that sort of situation, it doesn't take much to set things alight."

A bus full of passengers backed out of the tunnel, as did about 15 trucks. About 100 cars were able to turn around and leave the two-lane tunnel. Others leapt out of their cars, felt their way in the dark towards the emergency exits and got away through the foot tunnel that runs parallel to the road.

"Without the safety shelters, we would have many more victims on our hands," said Benno Bühlmann, chief of the cantonal chemical defence department.

Fabio Fraisioli, head of the medical team on the southern side, described the scene that awaited him. "People were very frightened, very agitated. Most of them were having difficulty breathing after being exposed to the fumes, their eyes were burning."

There would be no let-up for the emergency workers for the second night. They must first prop up the walls before tackling the gruesome task of removing the human remains.

"We have been going in and out all night, just working in shifts," said one rescue worker. "The main thing is to get the temperature down because only then will they be able to assess the structural damage. We have got to make it safe."

But safe for what? Motoring organisations have for years been asking for a second tunnel to be bored into the mountain to separate the onrushing columns of juggernauts and cars. The Gotthard, over 10 miles long, has always been a drive for the brave. Just one narrow lane in each direction, no central reservation and, as it now emerges, not that much in the way of technology in case anything should go wrong.

The Swiss government, which was reluctant to build better roads that would draw even more traffic through its passes, kept saying there was no need. The costs were said to outweigh the benefits.

After Wednesday's tragedy, the arithmetic has suddenly shifted. Yesterday the cantonal authorities relented, promising a new tunnel.

Unfortunately, it might not be completed for another 15 years.

In the meantime, the European Commission has weighed in, once again warning of the folly of the myriad juggernauts that trundle through the continent's thoroughfares, belching poison, and sowing death and destruction in their wake.

As a second fatal accident blocked another Swiss tunnel yesterday for a few hours, the authorities warned travellers to ditch their cars and get on the train instead. Putting lorries, especially those carrying flammable material, on trains is also a feasible option, though an expensive one. Hauliers will not hear of it.

But as one after other of the tunnels traversing the great mountain barrier straddling between north and south is closed down for repairs and fitted out with equipment suddenly deemed essential, there may be no other choice.