Trucks crash head-on in Albine tunnel; at least 9 killed

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Associated Press WriterAIROLO, Switzerland (AP) -- Two trucks, one of them carrying tires, crashed head on in a main tunnel through the Alps on Wednesday, sparking explosions and blasting heat and smoke through the passage. At least nine people trapped inside were killed, police said.

The crash in the 10-mile Gotthard Tunnel -- the world's second-longest road tunnel and a main north-south European axis through the Alps -- occurred at 9:45 a.m. about a mile from the southern exit, Ticino state police said.

Both trucks caught fire, quickly filling the tunnel with dense black smoke. Explosions could be heard, and heat and smoke prevented rescue workers at the southern end from reaching the fire for several hours, Ticino police spokesman Mario Ritter said.

"The heat is too high and there is zero visibility," he said. Parts of the tunnel ceiling had collapsed, he said.

At least nine people, including the driver of one of the trucks, were killed, Ritter said. The other driver escaped, he said.

Some motorists were able to flee by foot. Several were treated at an Airolo hospital for minor injuries, Ritter said.

Police at the northern end of the tunnel were able to turn many vehicles around and send them back to the northern exit, said Karl Egli, spokesman for Uri cantonal police.

One truck was carrying tires, and the smoke from the burning rubber pouring out of ventilation shafts was feared to be poisonous. Nearby residents were told to stay in their homes with their windows shut.

The tunnel, the main route through the Swiss Alps between Germany and Italy, was until last year the longest road tunnel in the world.

Traffic in the Gotthard Tunnel had increased since 1999 when a fire closed the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The Swiss government said 1.2 million trucks passed through the tunnel last year.

A burning truck turned that tunnel, which runs from France to Italy, into a flaming deathtrap, killing 39 people. It has been shut ever since. Repair work began last year, and the tunnel could be reopened later this year.

Two months later, 12 people died in Tauern Tunnel near Salzburg, Austria, after a truck plowed into the back of a car, setting off a chain of explosions. The ensuing blaze and smoke killed people trapped in cars and others trying to escape on foot.

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