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Recovery efforts in Gotthard proceeding faster than expected

Construction work to stabilise the tunnel's roof has been completed

Emergency workers carrying out rescue work inside the Gotthard tunnel after Wednesday's catastrophic accident are making faster progress than expected.

According to Giovanni Gado, spokesman for the canton police, the efforts to stabilise the damaged 250-metre section of the tunnel were finished successfully on Saturday night.

Swiss police say there is hope that the number of people killed in the inferno, which was triggered when two trucks collided head-on, may not rise above the 11 already confirmed dead.

The number of people missing dropped sharply to 65 from 100 earlier in the day, although this number might include people who were not in the Gotthard tunnel at the time of the disaster, but whose families have reported them missing.

After having extinguished the fire on Friday, rescue teams were able to enter the immediate site of the crash, labelled the “red zone”.

After having had a closer look at the twisted and melted remains of the 23 vehicles still inside the tunnel, rescue teams believe that most of their owners may have been able to escape.

Officials say that a special victim identification team would begin work into the tunnel on Monday.

Some victims identified

So far eight of the 11 victims, who died in the blaze and the subsequent explosion triggered by the collision, have been identified.

Four of the people killed were from Germany, the four others were from Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy and France. Nationalities of the other victims are not yet known.

According to police most of the dead, whose bodies have been found, are thought to have suffocated, however, many of those in the vicinity of the blaze were able to escape via a service tunnel, sealed off from the smoke and fumes by fire doors.

Switzerland calls for help

Switzerland is now asking the European Union to quickly help re-route traffic through other countries.

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 in the tunnel, which is on a main European north-south route.

The 17-kilometre tunnel is used by an estimated 19,000 truckers, business travellers and holidaymakers driving between Germany and Italy each day.

Industry sources say 80 per cent of cargo shipped from Italy to northern European airports goes through the tunnel.

The key alternate route, the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy, which has been closed since 1999 after a fire killed 39 people, is due to open for passenger cars on December 15.

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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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR