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Swiss Rescue Workers Search for Bodies After Tunnel Fire - 2001-10-26

Swiss rescue workers are still looking for bodies from a truck collision Wednesday, that turned the world's second longest road tunnel into a blazing inferno. Police have confirmed that 11 people died in the accident, which took place in southern Switzerland.

Officials in the town of Airolo, near the Swiss Italian city of Ticino, say they are still trying to put out the fire in the Gotthard Tunnel - but they have to do it from a distance. Police spokesman Franco Bianci said the heat from the blaze is so intense - near 1,000 degrees Celsius that firefighters have to keep about 250 meters away.

Nobody can go inside this point. So the police are working on the north side with the vehicles that we found - about 100 vehicles. The vehicles are from Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.

"Two trucks are believed to have collided about 1.5 kilometers into the southern end of the tunnel. About 80 people are still missing," he said.

Mr. Bianci said police are trying to locate the owners of the vehicles in the hope that they may have been able to escape the fire.

"The police are now calling these people asking if your wife or husband at home or did you speak with him or her? " he said.

Mr. Bianci said people in southern Switzerland are shocked by the accident, but he defended the safety of the nearly 17-kilometer long tunnel, saying it is one of the best in Switzerland, if not Europe.

In fact, transportation officials say the tunnel had pedestrian pathway and an air supply system that helped limit the death toll. But critics say the Gotthard tunnel has flaws, the most serious being that it has no barrier dividing traffic heading in opposite directions.

Traffic in the tunnel has increased since 1999, when a fire closed the Mont Blanc Tunnel, which links France and Italy. Thirty-nine people were killed in that accident and the tunnel has been closed ever since. There are reports that it may reopen before the end of the year.