CHAMONIX, France — Firefighters searched among the charred remains of cars and tractor-trailers Friday for victims of a catastrophic fire--a blaze that killed at least 35 people in a seven-mile tunnel under Western Europe's highest peak.
The blaze in the Mont Blanc tunnel, which broke out Wednesday on a Belgian truck carrying flour and margarine, was not extinguished until Friday afternoon.
The Alpine tunnel is a major route connecting France and Italy, used daily by up to 4,000 trucks.
On the French side, Philippe Pathous, fire chief for the Haute-Savoie region, said as many as 40 people may have died. On the Italian side, tunnel director Francesco Colombo put the toll at 35.
Among the survivors was the driver of the Belgian truck, Gilbert Degraves. Driving from France to Italy, he said he was alerted to the fire when oncoming vehicles flashed their headlights about four miles into the tunnel.
Smoke billowed from his truck. He stopped, checked underneath and "it exploded," Degraves, a truck driver for 25 years, told RTL radio. "It was a ball of fire for about 30 seconds."
Most victims were found in or around their vehicles. Only a few had been able to reach the 17 heat-resistant bunkers lining the tunnel.
It was the first fatal fire in the tunnel, which was the longest in the world when President Charles de Gaulle opened it in 1965.
The fire raised immediate questions about the emergency systems in the tunnel, which is equipped with ventilation equipment as well as the 17 bunkers, each of which can hold dozens of people. However, the bunkers are designed to resist heat and toxic fumes for only about two hours.
Among other safety measures, drivers in the two-lane tunnel can pull out every 1,000 feet in case of breakdowns or if they need to turn around. Tunnel officials also can send messages to drivers through an emergency broadcast system.
The tunnel operator, Mont Blanc Tunnel and Highway, said about 20 tractor-trailer trucks and 11 cars were destroyed in the blaze.
"It was truly a dramatic spectacle, and an apocalyptic situation," Pathous told a news conference at the French entrance. "There will be a problem identifying the bodies."
Temperatures in the tunnel reached at least 1,832 degrees at one point, officials said.
The bodies were still in the tunnel Friday evening, left in place so investigators could better conduct their inquiry into the causes of the fire. It wasn't known when they would be removed.