Rescuers near heart of tunnel

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The Independent Online

Rescue workers seeking to penetrate the final stretch of the fire-wracked San Gotthard tunnel said yesterday that they were making better progress than expected, and hoped that the death toll might not rise far above the 11 bodies recovered so far.

Rescue workers seeking to penetrate the final stretch of the fire-wracked Gotthard tunnel said yesterday that they were making better progress than expected, and hoped that the death toll might not rise far above the 11 bodies recovered so far.

Vehicles in the so-called "red zone" ­ where temperatures topped 1,200C at the height of the inferno ­ must be checked by experts looking for human remains among the molten metal. That work was originally due to start on Monday after huge braces had propped up the collapsing ceiling, but it may now begin sooner. There are only 12 abandoned vehicles in the unexplored area of the tunnel, raising hopes that the death toll may be much lower than first feared.

In the picturesque Upper Levantina valley, where the autumn sun picks out the snow-tipped Alps, the main sign of the disaster is the silence. Without the background hum of the 19,000 vehicles that headed up the motorway into the tunnel every day, the clank of cow bells on the pine-covered hillsides and the peal of church bells in the villages becomes clearer.

The 10-mile-long tunnel, built 21 years ago, had brought prosperity to this mountainous region, but last week it turned into a death trap after two long-haul lorries collided and a cargo of tyres burst into flames. The inferno has plunged north-south transport in Europe into chaos and risks causing immense losses for the economies of Italy, Switzerland and other neighbours.

Yesterday's announcement that the Mont Blanc tunnel, closed after the 1999 disaster, would partially reopen on 15 December will ease the pressure on the overloaded mountain crossings. But it leaves unanswered the most pressing questions about the safety of alpine road tunnels across the Continent.

The Gotthard tunnel had a good safety record and was considered at the cutting edge of responsible design because it had a separate security passage running alongside. Some 100 people managed to find their way to the emergency exits, butothers were not so lucky.

"I heard people yelling and crying in the dark and the thump of someone falling to the ground, but I couldn't help anyone, as I couldn't see at all in the black smoke," recalled 57-year-old Domenico De Furio, as he recovered in a local hospital.

Doctors there said they had treated another survivor, a young Italian truck driver from Padua, who told them that he had passed through the Mont Blanc tunnel two minutes before the explosion and fire and, after the second near-miss, would never go through a tunnel again.

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