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Saturday, March 27, 1999 Published at 17:06 GMT


Briton feared dead after tunnel fire

Temperatures inside the tunnel reached up to 1,000 degrees

A lorry driver from the UK is believed to have been among those killed in this week's tunnel inferno beneath Mont Blanc.

Up to 40 people are thought to have died when a fire broke out in the seven-mile tunnel, which marks the border between France and Italy.

The authorities believe most of the victims burned or choked to death as temperatures hit 1,000 degrees Celsius and clouds of noxious gas filled the tunnel.

The British driver, who is missing presumed dead, is 23-year-old Martin Cairns, who is originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He lived in the Netherlands and worked for a Dutch haulage firm.

Expectant father

Mr Cairns' Dutch fiancée is expecting their first child in September.

His boss, Leo Bergwerf, said he was in contact on Wednesday morning shortly before he was due to enter the tunnel.

[ image: Flags fly at half mast outside the entrance to the tunnel]
Flags fly at half mast outside the entrance to the tunnel
But an hour later they lost his satellite tracking link.

The inferno also claimed a French family of five, an Italian family of four, a French fireman and an Italian tunnel worker.

Two other British lorry drivers, Michael Whitby and Ross Bonson, escaped with their lives.

Emergency workers have counted the charred remains of 23 burned out lorries, nine cars and a van.

Gruesome spectacle

Seasoned firemen say it is a horrific scene with some of the victims still sitting behind their steering wheels.

Identification of the bodies is expected to take several days and some may be impossible to identify.

The fire started in a Belgian lorry loaded with margarine and flour.

Ironically the driver, Gilbert Degrave, 57, was among about 100 motorists who fled to safety.

He said fuel had leaked onto his vehicle's exhaust pipe, triggering the blaze.

A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office said: "We can confirm that a British man has been reported missing in this area, but the circumstances of his disappearance are not yet known."

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26 Mar 99 | Europe
Tunnel inferno kills 35

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