Railworkers rescued from tunnel fire


SPAIN: There were scenes of joy and relief as 39 railway construction workers, trapped underground in suffocating heat and acrid smoke for more than five hours, were brought to safety yesterday evening, writes Jane Walker in Madrid.

Most walked out unaided, and only three needed medical assistance. The fire broke out in mid-afternoon in the tunnel near Segovia, 80 kms from Madrid when the small train travelling to the work face to bring out the team ending their shift came off the tracks 1.5 kms from the entrance, exploded and caught fire.

Within minutes the tunnel was filled with smoke and flames, trapping the workers a further 4 kms inside. The fire was extinguished after nearly three hours, but the thick smoke made it impossible to reach the men.

Although a spokesman for the construction company G.I.F, said the ventilation systems were working efficiently there were fears that the oxygen supplies could run out if rescue workers could not get to them in time.

Firemen who tried to get to the scene on foot were forced back by zero visibility and thick smoke and had to wait until reinforcements bringing special portable breathing apparatus arrived from Madrid and Leon four hours after the accident. The men have been working since October to excavate two parallel tunnels 28 kms long through the Sierra de Guadarrma mountains to carry the AVE high speed train linking Madrid with Valladolid in less than an hour.

The controversial line, with an estimated cost of €1,082.2 million, has already suffered 60 accidents and cost two lives last January.

It is officially scheduled to begin operating in 2008. However, work on another high speed line from Madrid to Lleida, which was due to open a year ago, has seen 127 accidents and is far from complete.

Unions and political groups have frequently complained to the government recently about the high level of industrial accidents in Spain. According to a report published in June by consultants, Spain has the worst record in the EU for accidents in the workplace.

According to El Mundo, there were 277 accidents and three deaths in the construction of the new AVE high speed train lines in the first four months this year alone.

The building of the Madrid-Valladolid line is part of Spain's ambitious plan to modernise and extend roads and railways while it still receives EU infrastructure funds.