14 injured in train fire in tunnel under English Channel

Friday, September 12, 2008

COQUELLES, France -- A fire broke out Thursday on a train carrying trucks under the English Channel between England and France, injuring 14 people and shutting down traffic in the undersea rail tunnel, officials said.

About 100 firefighters from both sides of the channel got the blaze under control, but it was not entirely extinguished hours later, said Georges Bos, a spokesman for France's Pas-de-Calais region, which was handling the emergency response.

The train was carrying 32 people -- mostly truck drivers accompanying their vehicles -- when the blaze erupted at midafternoon about 7 miles from the French side, officials said. All were evacuated safely.

The fire broke out on one of the trucks loaded on the train, but the truck drivers were in a separate railcar. Traffic through the 30-mile tunnel would remain suspended at least until Friday, French rail operator SNCF said.

Eurostar, which operates passenger service, said none of its trains was in the tunnel when the fire began.

Bos said that the fire appeared to be accidental, with the source believed to be a truck tire, but that a police investigation would determine the exact cause.

Six people were taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation, but their conditions were not immediately clear, officials said. Eight others, including some who hurt their hands breaking the train car's windows to get out, were treated at the scene for light injuries.

"Two of them said they heard an explosion followed by flames," Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told reporters after arriving in the area.

Firefighters got the blaze under control within two hours, but weren't able to immediately put it out because temperatures as high as 1,832 degrees complicated their effort, she said.

The freight tunnel could be disabled for days -- if not weeks, Alliot-Marie said.

Jacques Gounon, chief executive officer of Eurotunnel, the company that operates the tunnel, said it was too early to predict how service would be affected.

"Because of the heat, smoke and smoke residue, it's not possible at this stage to get a sense of the partial or total destruction of any section of the infrastructure. But it's only concrete," he said.

The Channel Tunnel is actually composed of three tunnels, each about 31 miles in length and 130 feet beneath the sea bed.

One tunnel carries trains from France to England, and traffic in a second runs in the opposite direction. The remaining tunnel lies between the train tunnels and is used for maintenance and emergency access.

The blaze caused havoc for travelers and truckers frantically seeking to book ferries across the channel after train traffic was suspended.

"I'm angry because I don't have any money and I don't know where I will stay tonight," said Lydia Anaral, an 18-year-old student stranded at St. Pancras International Station in London.

Eurostar officials told travelers they could not provide hotel rooms or airplane tickets because the fire was not their responsibility and beyond their control.

Fires have rarely happened in the tunnel, which opened for commercial traffic in 1994.

In August 2006, the tunnel was closed for several hours after a fire broke out on a truck loaded onto a freight train. No one was hurt.

A larger fire broke out on a train carrying cargo trucks through the tunnel Nov. 18, 1996. Several people were injured and a large stretch of the tunnel was damaged. The fire led to new safety precautions for trains using the tunnel.

Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.

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