Gotthard disaster disrupts European traffic flow

The large red arrrow indicates disrupted north-south tunnel traffic

As rescue teams recover victims and charred vehicles after Wednesday's catastrophic accident in the Gotthard tunnel, Switzerland is asking the European Union to quickly help re-route traffic through other countries.

This content was published on November 23, 2001 - 15:55

Swiss alpine passes cannot handle heavy commercial traffic, said Michel Egger, deputy head of the Federal Office for Roads.

He is a member of the Swiss crisis team set up in response to the accident, which occurred on Wednesday when two trucks collided in the Gotthard tunnel, on a main European north-south route.

The accident triggered an inferno that left 11 dead, and forced the closure of the tunnel, for at least two or three months.

The 17-kilometre tunnel is used by truckers, business travellers and holidaymakers driving between Germany and Italy.

A key alternate route, the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy, has been closed since 1999, after a fire killed 39 people.

An estimated 19,000 vehicles travel the north-south artery each day, and industry sources say 80 per cent of cargo shipped from Italy to northern European airports goes through the tunnel.

"The San Bernardino, Simplon and St Bernhard will not be able to cope with the additional traffic" after the Gotthard closure, Egger said.

Hans Werder, general secretary of the transport ministry, who heads the Swiss crisis team, said it will analyse the accident's effects, and find ways of diverting the cargo traffic.

Tragic consequences

More than 100 people are still unaccounted for, following Wednesday's accident, police said. That number, however, could include people who were not in the Gotthard tunnel at the time of the disaster, but whose families have reported them missing. Police said late on Friday they do not expect the death toll to rise.

As many as 40 vehicles were crushed when parts of the tunnel roof collapsed, police said. And the occupants of some 100 other cars abandoned them and fled after the crash. Crews were removing them on Friday.

In the accident, a truck carrying tyres caught fire and filled the tunnel with deadly fumes. Most of the victims died of suffocation, authorities said.

Four of the victims were German. Four others who died were from Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy and France. Nationalities of the other victims are not yet known.

Engineers were working to stabilise the 250-metre section within the tunnel where the collision occurred, so the recovery teams and work crews could safely continue their work.

Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire on Friday, after battling with the blaze for two days.

Rail response

Switzerland's Federal Railways and a regional carrier, BLS, agreed to double their transport capacity respectively through the Gotthard and Lötschberg tunnels.

It is the first time in 20 years that the Railways has proposed a road-to-rail transfer for cars at the Gotthard.

The frequency of trains at the Gotthard is expected to rise from the current 10 per day to 28 within the next week and a half.

In addition, the Railways says it is increasing the capacity of passenger trains.

An alternate road through Switzerland was temporarily blocked on Thursday, when another truck accident occurred near the San Bernardino tunnel. One person was killed in that crash.

The San Bernardino tunnel was reopened several hours later.

swissinfo with agencies

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