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Thursday, 25 October, 2001, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Swiss shaken by row of disasters
Traffic blocked from the Gotthard tunnel, and running through the St Bernard
The fire is the final straw for the Swiss psyche
By Emma Jane Kirby in Geneva

Bad things are not supposed to happen in Switzerland. Tucked away quietly in the middle of the Alps, this immensely rich and powerful nation still manages to portray itself as the perfect bucolic idyll.

Its tranquillity and serenity are the envy of those stuck in the frantic metropolis and its affluence and dependability promises any visitor a stay of guaranteed quality.

15 people were killed and 10 others seriously injured in the shooting incident in the Swiss parliament
Medics help the wounded in Zug
But over the past six weeks, the wholesome Swiss image has had to withstand some very heavy blows.

On 27 September, 57-year-old Friedrich Leibacher stormed into the Zug Parliament Assembly Hall, armed with a machine gun and opened fire.

Fifteen people were killed and 10 others seriously wounded.

The Swiss tradition of minimal security and accessibility came to an abrupt end and the Swiss people were forced to reflect on why a nation of just seven million people have as many as 700,000 guns.

If the Swiss sense of invulnerability was shaken by this crime, Swiss pride was to receive an even bigger blow.

Swiss Air fleet remained grounded at airports around the world for several days
Swissair's demise has mortified the nation
On 1 October, Swissair - the Swiss flag carrying national airline which was the very epitome of reliability and excellence - told the world that it was bankrupt.

On 2 and 3 October the entire Swissair fleet was grounded as fuel suppliers refused to serve the Swissair planes and airports demanded upfront landing taxes that Swissair simply could not pay.

Embarrassment doesn`t sum up the Swiss response. Swiss people were mortified.

Not even the military strikes in Afghanistan have knocked Swissair from the front pages of the national papers.

Day after day there have been editorials criticising the laissez faire Swiss economy, articles ranting against the power of the Swiss banks, and full page features tentatively suggesting that the episode has proved that Switzerland can no longer go it alone and really must now join the European Union.

But on Thursday, Swissair just gets a column in the inside pages.

"Gotthard Road Tunnel - the Fatal Trap, " reads the headline in Le Temps.

Death trap

The front page of Le Matin shows simply a ball of fire inside the tunnel. "Terrible fatalities," it writes in block red capitals.

What a catalogue of disasters!

Le Temps
And the Tribune de Geneve, also showing colour images of the burning tunnel, says the fire crews could do nothing. The Gotthard tunnel fire is the final straw for the Swiss psyche.

The second longest tunnel in the world, and a major link from Germany and Switzerland into Northern Italy, is no longer a proud piece of Swiss engineering, its just a death trap. Ten are dead, but 80 are still missing.

Map showing tunnel location
"What a catalogue of disasters!" writes Le Temps, listing the Zug shooting, Swissair and Gotthard.

"For those whose lives have been touched by one of these horrors, each one is unique and incomparable. But for those of us who look on from a distance, it constitutes an accumulation, and we search for a meaning to it all."

So far, no-one has come up with an answer. When Moritz Leuenberger , the Swiss President appears on television these days he looks shocked and frazzled.

When he speaks, it's not with a patriotic vainglorious rhetoric but with a halted prose that`s full of words and phrases like "disaster" and "a black day for Switzerland".

Local politicians like Luigi Pedrazzini, the President of the Ticino government have already proclaimed the Gotthard fire "an international tragedy" and say the event "raises safety questions which must now be answered."

For now, the Tribune de Geneve simply writes the horrible facts. "Some motorists, had their lives saved thanks to the safety exits or by turning back - others, blinded by the smoke just couldn`t escape the trap."

When the final death toll is counted, and the smoke begins to clear over Gotthard, Switzerland will need to take time to reflect.

What lessons need to be learned in a country which has so many guns, so few ties with Europe and some 18,500 vehicles roaring daily under those famous, peaceful Alps?

The BBC's Jon Sopel
"Deep underground a still unknown number of poeple have suffocated"
See also:

25 Oct 01 | Europe
Eighty missing after tunnel fire
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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