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Fire in Channel tunnel, six hurt

CALAIS, September 12 – Firefighters struggled Friday to put out a blaze on a freight shuttle in the Channel Tunnel that injured six people and forced the closure of the undersea link, officials said.

Rescuers evacuated dozens of truck drivers from the tunnel after an explosion and fire on the shuttle Thursday.

Six people suffered smoke inhalation after the blaze took hold on a truck being transported from Britain to France, officials said. Earlier reports of a further eight people slightly injured were incorrect, they added.

"The fire is under control but it is still burning. Working conditions are very difficult due to the heat" which had reached 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 Fahrenheit), a spokesman for the local prefecture said at 5:30 am (0330 GMT).

Two hours later two wagons were still on fire, nearly 15 hours after the blaze broke out.

"Two shuttle wagons are still on fire which is hard to put out," the spokesman said.

"Firefighters made some progress but they’re working in difficult conditions because of the flames and the heat which is still around 1,000 degrees. It slows them down."

About 40 French and 20 British firefighters are involved in the operation.

Eurotunnel, which operates the tunnel, and Eurostar, which runs high-speed passenger rail services, said the tunnel suffered serious damage and would not reopen on Friday.

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It took about three hours to bring 32 people — mostly truckers who moved from the burning train into a parallel service tunnel — to safety.

Thousands of people were stranded in London, Paris and Brussels, and huge traffic tailbacks built up on either side of the Channel after the tunnel was closed.

Eurostar said on its website that it "does not expect to operate a service" Friday, with a question mark placed over Saturday and Sunday schedules too.

It is the third major fire in the tunnel since it was opened in May 1994.

The train was about five kilometres (three miles) from the Calais exit on the French side of the 50.5-kilometre tunnel when it caught fire, according to Francois Malhanche, director of the regional prefect’s office.

"The fire appears to be accidental. It started in a truck brake system that overheated and spread to a tyre and then to two other trucks," Malhanche said.

One of the other trucks on the shuttle was carrying phenol acid, but this did not catch fire, officials said.

Helicopters and ambulances were waiting at the French entrance to take the injured to hospital.

French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie went immediately to the site in northern France.

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"Two of the drivers said they heard an explosion and this was followed by flames," she told reporters. "They tried to get out and could do so because of the structure of the tunnel which allows a rapid evacuation."

"It is probable that the damage is major, as the firemen told me that the heat from the fire probably reached 1,000 degrees Celsius," she added.

The multi-billion-dollar tunnel carries Eurostar high-speed trains between London, Paris and Brussels, as well as freight and passenger shuttles between Folkestone in England and Calais.

There are two tunnels for passenger trains and shuttles and a service tunnel for maintenance and safety operations.

In the first serious incident on November 18, 1996, a fire broke out on a late-night shuttle train carrying trucks. Eight people were injured and the service was disrupted for several months.

On August 21, 2006, the tunnel was closed for several hours after a truck engine caught fire, sending smoke through the tunnel.

Long traffic tailbacks rapidly formed on the British end after the latest closure.

Kent Fire and Rescue service, on the British side, said it sent seven fire engines to help French counterparts at the scene. A spokeswoman called it a "serious incident."

Kent police implemented "Operation Stack," which allows trucks to park along the main M20 motorway running down to the tunnel terminal from London.

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The SNCF French state rail firm said four high-speed express trains had to return to Paris or London because of the tunnel closure.

Thousands of passengers were left stranded at the Gare du Nord rail station in Paris and the new St Pancras station in London.

There was a rush for any remaining plane seats between London and Paris and for available hotel rooms.


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