31 killed as truck collision turns Chinese tunnel into fiery death trap

Investigators have now determined the number of fatalities in tragedy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 9:57pm

Investigators revealed a horrific story of a collision between two methanol tanker trucks that triggered an explosion inside a northern Chinese tunnel filled with trucks carrying coal and other flammable materials.

Investigators said today that leakage from the two crashed methanol tankers inside the tunnel in China's Shanxi province two weeks ago killed at least 31 people, with nine still missing, according to Xinhua.

Initial reports on March 1, when the accident happened, said six people were missing and 12 injured after a fire and explosion inside a highway tunnel near Jincheng, Shanxi province. 

State media had gradually updated the death toll in their coverage of the accident in the last two weeks, until it reached 16 on Wednesday. 

After one methanol tanker rear-ended another parked inside the tunnel during a traffic jam, the two drivers failed to alert police or vehicles nearby even though methanol was already leaking from the truck in the front.

Instead, they decided to disentangle the two trucks by having the one in the front pull forward, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted investigators as saying. 

The methanol then caught fire, and the two drivers fled the scene with the two security guards who were travelling with the trucks.

The fire spread quickly as the leaked methanol flowed down the tunnel, lighting up other trucks loaded with coal and one natural gas tanker, Xinhua said.  

Thick smoke soon filled the entire 800-metre-long tunnel, which had no ventilation facilities, as panicking drivers and passengers tried to flee from both ends. 

The tragedy was further compounded by a malfunctioning fire hydrant and locked emergency escape shafts in the tunnel, according to Xinhua. 

About 100 minutes after the crash, the natural gas tanker exploded, sending one half of the truck flying 50 metres inside the tunnel and turning it into a burning hell. 

A total of 42 vehicles were destroyed in the accident, and 48 people were able to escape. 

It had been extremely difficult for investigators to accurately calculate the death toll because "most of the human remains retrieved from the scene of the accident were highly carbonised," said the official China News Service. 

A check point about 3.8 kilometres from the tunnel slowed traffic and stopped vehicles from escaping in time, it said. The investigators also faulted lax management of hazardous materials by the trucks' owners, drivers and accompanying security guards, and "chaotic" management of the highway authorities.