Tunnel death toll likely to rise

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The Independent Online

The death toll in the lorry crash, which transformed Switzerland's Gotthard Tunnel into a blistering inferno, is expected to be substantially higher than the 11 people already confirmed dead

The death toll in the lorry crash, which transformed Switzerland's Gotthard Tunnel into a blistering inferno, is expected to be substantially higher than the ten people already confirmed dead

More than 120 people are missing and it feared that the death toll will rise subsstantially.

The fire continued to burn today, 34 hours after the crash in the world's second–longest road tunnel. Heat nearing 1,000 degrees Celsius prevented firefighters from nearing the heart of the blaze, where part of the tunnel roof had collapsed.

"The list of unaccounted for is continuously being revised," Romano Piazzini, police chief of the canton of Ticino, told a news conference.

He refused to speculate about the number of casualties – although officials said it could be around 20. There was no indication how long the tunnel – one of Europe's most important North–South road routes – would stay closed.

Traffic chaos worsened when the main alternative Alpine route, the San Bernardino pass, was shut for several hours following an accident between a truck and a minibus. This prompted Italian authorities to close the highway border crossing at Chiasso, leading to huge backups of trucks. The bus driver was killed, while the truck driver escaped.

The Gotthard accident followed the fire in March 1999 in the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy, which killed 39 people. Two months later, 12 people died in the Tauern Tunnel near Salzburg, Austria, after a truck plowed into the back of a car, setting off a chain of explosions.

Firefighters made three attempts overnight to put out the Gotthard fire but were driven back by the heat. Rescue workers managed to locate the bodies of ten men and one woman, most of whom died of suffocation from fumes.

The toll could have been worse: A bus full of passengers managed to reverse out of the tunnel, as did about 15 trucks. About 100 cars turned around and left the single–bore, two–lane tunnel. Others escaped via the foot tunnel.

The accident happened when a truck lost control about one mile from the southern entrance of the tunnel. It crashed into an oncoming tyre–transporting truck, whose driver managed to escape and warn approaching vehicles.

Officials said the Gotthard tunnel's safety features – including an emergency foot tunnel with its own lighting, air supply and exits running alongside the road tunnel – helped limit the toll from Wednesday's crash.

The Gotthard tunnel had generally scored well in safety surveys by road users groups. A Swiss government expert group, set up in the wake of the Mont Blanc and Tauern disasters, concluded last year that there was no justification on security grounds to build a second road tunnel to separate northbound from southbound traffic.

The Swiss road transport industry has long lobbied for a second tunnel – a demand repeated by the International Road Transport Union in the wake of the crash.

The closure of the Gotthard means prolonged traffic chaos. The tunnel is on the main route between Germany and Italy and is a vital transit route for trucks passing between northern and southern Europe. More than 1.2 million trucks and millions more vacationers passed through the tunnel last year.