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Thursday, 25 October, 2001, 06:33 GMT 07:33 UK
Smoke hinders Swiss tunnel rescue
Police handout picture showing Gotthard tunnel accident site shortly after fire broke out
The fire spread quickly after the accident
Firefighters and rescue workers have been unable to reach the heart of a fire inside the Gotthard road tunnel in Switzerland which has killed at least 10 people.

Thick acrid smoke was still pouring from the tunnel entrance on Thursday morning, nearly 24 hours after a head-on collision between two lorries.


Suddenly there was smoke and I couldn't see anything

Lorry driver Marco Frischknecht
One of the trucks was carrying tyres and tarpaulins which caught fire and the intense heat is reported to have brought down part of the tunnel roof.

Police fear more bodies could be trapped in wreckage close to the fire.

Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger said many people had escaped using the ventilation system and emergency exits.

Running for their lives

The tunnel, at 15 kilometres (10 miles) long, is the second-longest in the world and the main route through the Alps from Germany to Italy.

Some drivers abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot. Others are thought to have been trapped by the flames and the collapse of the tunnel's roof.

"Suddenly there was smoke and I couldn't see anything," said lorry driver Marco Frischknecht.

Switzerland map
"I tried to reverse but there were so many people I had to give up," he said.

The surviving driver of one of the lorries which crashed said he had managed to escape from his vehicle and direct other people away from the crash site about 2km (1m) from the tunnel's southern exit.

Police spokesman Mario Ritter said rescuers struggled to reach the site.

"The heat is too high and there is zero visibility," he said.

About 150 firefighters and other rescuers worked through the night.

Safety fears

People living near the entrance have been warned to stay indoors and close their windows as smoke billowed from the accident site.

The tunnel has been more heavily used since the 1999 Mont Blanc tunnel fire, which killed 39 people. That tunnel remains closed.

But Swiss officials said the inclusion of a service tunnel - which the Mont Blanc tunnel did not have - in the design of the Gotthard tunnel had saved many lives.


This was an accident that was waiting to happen.

Local politician Markus Gisler

In addition, automatic barriers stopped any more traffic from entering the tunnel, ventilation systems switched to their emergency settings and rescue workers were alerted within minutes.

But the BBC's correspondent in Switzerland, Emma Jane Kirby, says that the accident will fuel already-strong opposition to the heavy lorry traffic in narrow Alpine tunnels.

"This was an accident that was waiting to happen. The Gotthard tunnel has just one lane in each direction in a single corridor," said local politician and tunnel safety campaigner Markus Gisler.

Smoke at accident scene
Thick black smoke has billowed from the tunnel's ventilation points
The European Union Commissioner for transport, Loyola de Palacio, has also called for more freight to be transported through the Alps by train.

"The absolute priority for the long term is to put into service as soon as possible new railway routes," she said.

Switzerland has already begun work on a rail tunnel under the Gotthard pass which is set to open in 2012 and on the Loetscheberg tunnel which should open in five years' time.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Sopel
"Rescue service still have not been able to reach the seat of the fire"
The BBC's James Coomerasamy reports
from the tunnel entrance
See also:

24 Oct 01 | Business
Tunnel crash blow to trade
24 Oct 01 | Europe
Gotthard: Main Alpine link
24 Oct 01 | Europe
In Pictures: Swiss tunnel horror
24 Oct 01 | Europe
Alps tunnels' record of danger
28 May 01 | Europe
Lorry fire closes Alpine tunnel
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