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2001: Swiss tunnel ablaze after head-on crash

VIDEO : Rescue services unable to get to seat of fire

At least 10 people have died after two lorries crashed head-on and caught fire inside the Gotthard road tunnel in Switzerland.

Part of the tunnel roof has reportedly collapsed and police are bracing themselves for more casualties.

Intense heat and thick black smoke are preventing rescuers getting close to the scene.

Police spokesman Marco Ritter said: "The heat is too high and there is zero visibility."

Fleeing on foot

The smoke is thought to be from tyres being transported by one of the vehicles involved in the crash which happened about 2 km(1 mile) from the south exit.

Some drivers abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot. It is thought the ventilation system has been used as a means of escape along with the emergency exits.

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

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

The tunnel, at 15km (10 miles) long, is the second largest in the world and the main route from Zurich through the Alps to Northern Italy.

It has been heavily used since the closure of the Mont Blanc tunnel in 1999 following a fire in which 39 people died.

The accident is likely to fuel strong opposition to the heavy traffic flow in narrow Alpine tunnels.

"This was an accident that was just 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.

In Context
The final death toll for the fire was 11.

The tunnel re-opened in December 2001 despite protests from locals who feared there would be increased queues of traffic and noise pollution.

New safety measures were implemented with the re-opening. The number of lorries travelling through the tunnel on a daily basis was reduced from 5,500 to 3,500 and all lorries had to travel 150 yards (137 metres) apart.

Work is continuing on a rail tunnel that will run beneath the Gotthard pass. It is due to open in 2012 with the Loetscheberg tunnel expected to be completed in 2006.

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