Rescuers start recovering bodies from tunnel blaze in Switzerland; 10 confirmed dead

Thursday, October 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AIROLO, Switzerland (AP) _ Rescuers started recovering bodies Thursday from a Swiss highway tunnel transformed into an inferno by a truck collision and fire. Ten people were confirmed dead, and it was feared the toll would rise.

The fire continued to burn Thursday, one day after the collision, and temperatures of 1,800 degrees caused part of the Gotthard Tunnel to collapse.

Authorities said about 80 people had been reported missing by family and friends _ down from 200 Wednesday.

``The list of unaccounted for is continuously being revised,'' said Romano Piazzini, police chief of Ticino state.

Piazzini said extreme heat prevented firefighters and rescue workers from nearing the heart of the blaze, where part of the tunnel roof had collapsed.

Gotthard Tunnel is the second longest road tunnel in the world and one of Europe's most important North-South road routes. There was no indication how long it would stay closed.

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

The Gotthard accident renewed questions about the safety of Europe's Alpine road tunnels. In March 1999, a fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy 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. However, they managed to locate the bodies of nine men and one woman, Piazzini said. Nearly all the victims died of suffocation from fumes.

Piazzini said six of the bodies were found on the road, while the remaining four were still in their cars. The vehicles bore Swiss, German and Italian license plates.

Many people in the tunnel managed to escape. A bus full of passengers backed out of the tunnel, as did about 15 trucks. About 100 cars were able to turn around and leave the two-lane tunnel. Others managed to escape through a foot tunnel, Piazzini said.

Officials said the Gotthard tunnel's safety features _ including the foot tunnel with its own lighting, air supply and exits running alongside the road tunnel _ saved many lives.

Rescue workers were deployed within a minute of the crash as dense smoke fueled by a load of tires on one of the trucks billowed out of the 10.6-mile tunnel, officials said.

The tunnel is on the main route between Germany and Italy, two of Europe's most populous countries, and is a vital connection between northern and southern Europe. More than 1.2 million trucks and millions more vacationers passed through the crowded tunnel last year.

Thanks to unusually mild weather, many vehicles are still able to cross the Gotthard Pass above the tunnel, but that route will close in the coming weeks because of snow.

The Gotthard, which opened in 1980, was the longest road tunnel in the world until Norway opened its 15.2-mile Laerdal Tunnel last year.

Traffic through the Gotthard has increased since the Mont Blanc tragedy. Repair work on the Mont Blanc Tunnel began last year, and it could be reopened later this year.