Death toll in tunnel fire may not be clear for weeks

Rescuers edge their way into a deadly stretch of the crash site, as authorities admit it will be a long process to identify victims
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The Independent Online

Swiss firefighters finally quenched the flames that have engulfed the Gotthard tunnel since two lorries collided on Wednesday, but it will be days, if not weeks, before investigators know how many people perished.

Swiss firefighters finally quenched the flames that have engulfed the Gotthard tunnel since two lorries collided on Wednesday, but it will be days, if not weeks, before investigators know how many people perished.

More than 100 people are reported missing and police say they have been flooded with calls from concerned relatives from all over Europe.

Police said last night that they hoped the provisional toll of 11 dead might be the final figure but this could prove to be an optimistic assessment.

For 48 hours, temperatures of more than 1,000C and dense smoke prevented rescue workers getting close to where the two juggernauts collided, turning Europe's second longest tunnel into an inferno. They forced their way through yesterday but were obliged to move slowly in case the partially collapsed roof gave way.

None of the emergency workers has yet entered the deadly 50-yard stretch beyond the two crashed lorries, where other bodies may yet be found.

"There is still a 50-yard area that is a mass of fused metal and concrete," said Romano Piazzni, police chief of Ticino canton. Rescue workers fear that as many as 30 cars and trucks could have been destroyed by the blaze within a few minutes. It is unclear how many of their occupants managed to reach the escape tunnel and on to safety.

Two victims, a Swiss and an Italian, have been identified and their remains released to relatives. Eight others, thought to be French and German, are still to be formally identified.

The other victim, the driver of the lorry that caused the crash, has not yet been removed from what remains of his vehicle.

At a chilly motorway police station an hour's drive south of the tunnel a reception centre has been set up for families of the victims or the missing. An elderly Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a team of doctors and psychologists are preparing them for the task of identifying their loved ones.

In the snow-dusted Swiss-Italian Alps, the Gotthard, an ugly concrete mouth that slashes across the postcard scene, now looks innocuous. Journalists were yesterday allowed to enter the southern end of the tunnel to inspect a mass of mangled metal and smell for themselves the stench of burnt rubber. The carcasses of the juggernauts are just about distinguishable – one looks like a crumpled toy, the other is just a burnt-out shell.

"That's the cab of a truck that was carrying tyres south through the tunnel," said a member of the rescue team, tracing the outline of where the windscreen once was.

After visiting the scene, the Swiss President, Moritz Leuenberger, said: "It is a true vision of hell."

Beyond the trucks was the collapsed tunnel roof and the inaccessible area. Beyond that again was a 200-yard stretch which workers were inspecting yard by yard. By yesterday evening, they had found no new corpses.

"We hope we won't find any more or at least not the hundred or more people at first feared dead,'' said Franco Bianchi of the local police. After the alarming, and maybe alarmist, figures of those believed missing – which bounced from 20 to 80 to 140 in just one day – the Swiss police are trying to play down the situation.

"There have been calls from people about relatives who are probably nowhere near the tunnel but checking that out is time-consuming," said Mr Bianchi.

Officials say they were encouraged by the experience of a Luxembourg truck driver who found himself immediately behind the collision. He managed to get out and flee through the emergency exit to the service passage that runs alongside the 10-mile tunnel.

The Swiss President has said a week will be needed to clear up the tunnel and another to conclude the judicial investigation after which they could begin to rebuild it. But many believe the Gotthard, which used to take 19,000 vehicles a day, will be closed for months.

The nearby St Bernhard tunnel can take only a fraction of the traffic. With the Mont Blanc tunnel still closed after a similar accident and fire two and a half years ago, cross-European freight faces a serious and lengthy crisis.

Italian transporters are already demanding compensation for what they say will be million-dollar losses.

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Some of those who died in the tunnel were just yards from the escape hatches when they were overcome by the toxic fumes and lack of oxygen.

One trucker, Rosario Caggiano, only had time for a couple of snatched, agitated sentences with his boss before he was overcome by the smoke. "Signor Laghi, I am in the Gotthard and there's an accident. It looks like fog but it must be smoke.''

His voice became desperate. "I can see flames, please call for help, I don't know...'' Then his phone cut out.

His wife, Rosa, mother of his two children and pregnant with his third, had to be taken to hospital when she heard of his death. It was the job of his brother, Matteo, also a driver, to come north and identify his brother's remains. Cousins and in-laws also went to the scene to provide support.

Mr Caggiano, 37, came from a trucking family which had migrated to the north from the south and had driven across the continent for 15 years.

"He was a safe and experienced trucker,'' said Matteo. "But he'd just changed jobs to spend less time in north Europe and more time closer to home.''