Fire in the Gotthard road tunnel 20 years ago

Benno Bulhmann

Fire in the Gotthard road tunnel 20 years ago

By Mr Benno Bühlmann, Head of the Integrated Risk Management and Civil Protection at GCSP

On Wednesday, 24 October 2001, at 9:39 a.m., it happened: in the Gotthard road tunnel in the Canton of Uri, Switzerland, two trucks collided sideways, within one kilometre of the south portal near Airolo. A short circuit ignited the diesel-air mixture, causing the two camions and their charge, including hundreds of tires, to go up in flames. The result was a major fire with temperatures of up to 1200 degrees. Eleven people lost their lives and the tunnel remained closed for two months.

Benno Bühlmann, Head of Integrated Risk Management and Civil Protection at GCSP, was Head of the Chemical Defence Brigade of the Canton Uri in 2001.  He was involved in the Gotthard fire with his organisation on the north side of the Gotthard tunnel.

The editors of Migros Magazine asked him for an interview about the fire in the Gotthard road tunnel, which took place around 20 years ago.

In the interview, Benno Bühlmann was asked how he remembered his commitment at that time, and which lessons were learnt from this event.

For Benno Bühlmann, it was the worst assignment he had experienced. In retrospect, he still replays those images that he saw in his memory: the inferno, the chaos, the dead people on the ground.

Over the past 20 years, massive investments have been made in tunnel safety. Many things have been improved such as ventilation, self-rescue possibilities and information. Even most people driving through a road tunnel today know what to do if they may need to save themselves. Of course, there is a residual risk with every tunnel passage. However, this is much less than it was 20 years ago. The emergency services and care teams have been better trained and are much more prepared today.

This example shows that integral risk management pays off and saves lives.

Benno Bühlmann serves as the Head of the Integrated Risk Management and Civil Protection at GCSP.

With more than 30 years of experience, he has deep expertise spanning Leadership, Strategy, Change Management, Risk Management, Disaster Risk Reduction, Civil Protection, Critical Infrastructure Protection, Business Continuity Management, Secure Communication Systems, Crisis Management, CBRNe-Protection, Natural Hazards, Environmental Protection, Climate Change, and Sustainability.