AIROLO, Switzerland — Rescuers on Thursday beat back a fierce blaze sparked by a truck crash inside the longest highway tunnel through the Alps. Eleven people were confirmed dead, and officials fear others lay incinerated in the inferno.
About 128 people were reported missing by family and friends--up from 80 Thursday morning. Authorities said the higher number reflected duplication, with worried people phoning separate hotlines in different Swiss states.
"It is a scene of horror, a scene of total destruction, a scene of dreadful tragedy," said Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger, who is also transportation minister.
The blaze began Wednesday morning in the more than 10-mile-long St. Gotthard Tunnel when a northbound truck lost control about one mile inside and crashed into an oncoming truck carrying tires, which then caught fire and spewed poisonous fumes.
By Thursday, firefighters managed to reduce temperatures that had soared above 1,800 degrees and caused part of the tunnel's roof to collapse. Penetrating to the heart of the crash site, firefighters reported seeing 15 trapped vehicles, many of whose occupants had escaped or died while seeking safety.
Four of the dead were German. Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy and France each counted one victim. The nationalities of the three others were not immediately known.
Each year, more than 1.2 million truckers and millions more vacationers pass through the tunnel, which links northern and southern Europe.
The accident renewed questions about the safety of the Alpine road tunnels. In March 1999, a fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy killed 39 people. Two months later, 12 people died in the Tauern Tunnel near Salzburg, Austria, after a truck plowed into the back of a car, setting off a chain of explosions.