The Tauern Tunnel

- 12 deaths, 16 hours burning

86 people managed to flee, 47 of them were wounded

To analyse the most common faults let's see what happened in the 6041 meters long Tauern Tunnel on that terrible 29th of May 1999

The wrecks in front are already extinguished but in the rear the fire still burns

Above: When the firefighters reached the site at 8 PM, about 15 hours after the accident this was the sight they had. The wrecks in the foreground were already extinguished, their occupants could flee in time. But the main site in the rear still burns at over 1000° C. A thick coat of foam covers the ground and you can see parts of the roof hanging down against the fiery background.

Night from Friday to Saturday, 2.08 AM

At this time an serious accident happened some way after the tunnel in direction of Salzburg. The road was closed for an hour in that direction which caused quite an large traffic jam. trafic in opposite direction was also quite heavy with 800-1000 vehicles per hour. So the night repair works which were carried out inside the tunnel about 800 meters from the northern portal. Trafic were regulated by traffic lights inside the tunnel to get a quicker flow. Regulating the complete tunnel would have created very large traffic jams. Speedlimits were signposted to 50 and later even to 30 Km/h. Inside the tunnel a strong airflow from south to north was felt.

Saturday 4.47 AM

The traffic light direction nort (Salzburg) switches to red, after 40 seconds the opposite light will show green for southbound direction.

Saturday morning 4.48 AM, ignition

The light changes to red for the traffic coming from south. A lorry loaden with paint can stops. Four cars behind him also stop.

Alfred B., a 28-year old professional truck drivers is on the way back from 500 Km distant Bologna. He's slept only a few hours the night before. Now he drives a load of 50 cows in his heavy semi-trailer. Soon after entering the tunnel he reaches the speed limit of 50 Km/h (30 Mph) - and then falls asleep for seconds. His 34-tons truck crushes into the cars, smashing the last two cars into each other and the other 2 cars into the tunnel wall and under the front lorry with such force that the police long believed it was only a single car.

Fire immediately flashed up, probably due to the torn up fuel tanks. Several explosions happened, probably spray cans exploding and flying around burning. Heavy smoke developed instantly, all this only seconds after disaster struck. 8 people died instantly. With great luck 2 people from the cars could flee with only minor wounds.

Smashed and burned out wrecks at the place the accident happened.

2 minutes after ignition

The fire detection system triggers the alarm in the control room at St. Michael. The manager in duty immediately switches to 4 cameras covering to the site. Almost nothing could be seen. The alarm (different from the Mont Blanc Tunnel system) automatically switches the traffic lights at the entrances of the tunnel to red. But trafic goes on and many drivers simply pass the red lights and engage into the tunnel, a mistake many will pay dearly for. A similar test was made some months later at another tunnel for a TV report and it also showed lots and lots of cars ignoring the trafic lights.

At the same moment as the alarm goes off the control video cameras at the northern portal show suddenly thick smoke coming up the tunnel at high speed. It takes only seconds to obstruct the cameras view to the point they only show a black image. Still more cars engage into the tunnel from the south ignoring the red lights.

The manager in duty immediately allerts the Gendarmerie who have the same control screens installed. Then he alerts the firefighters located at both ends of the tunnel. At this moment there are 36 cars and lorries inside the tunnel. None of them managed to get out again.

The fleeing people had between 400-800m to run if they could choose the northern exit or nearly 5,5 kilometers to the south.

5 minutes after ignition

Automatic logs show that the first extinguisher gets now taken out of his housing. Witnesses reported how some drivers refused to leave their cars, despite the chaos around them. Others even tried to manoeuvre their vehicles in the middle of the smoky inferno and drive in the opposite direction. One lorry driver said: 'They locked their cars, had a look around, and a German driver was taking pictures.'

4 lorry drivers try to take cover inside an emergency phone box about 100 meters from their vehicles but only 2 men and a woman manage to do so as the smoke obstructs everything. From the box #46 they alert the control room at 4.54 AM. Although it gets incredibly hot inside they survive as the doors keep the smoke out. The video cameras near the site stop transmitting.

Newspapers: Lkw-Fahrer Franz Grünkranz (45) aus Blindheim verschanzte sich mit Kollegen in einer Notfallkabine: „Wir hatten mit dem Leben abgeschlossen. Feuerwehrleute holten uns nach einer Stunde raus.“ Lkw-Fahrer Thomas B. aus Bad Hersfeld (27, selbst Feuerwehrmann) schaffte es nicht. Notarzt Reinhold Pieringer: „Ich fand ihn tot neben der Notrufsäule.“ Schon im Sterben hatte er über sein Handy noch zweimal seine Firma angerufen: „Ich kann vor Rauch nichts mehr sehen, helft mir...“

Some remains of 2 cars crashed against the wall

9 minutes a.i.

Sirens go off all around as general alert is given. At this moment the next firefighters, the volunteers of Flachau at the north are alerted. They have not less than 18 kilometers uphill to reach the portal with their 16 ton engine. At the south the volunteers of Zederhaus have 7 kilometers to drive. Until now they only know that heavy smoke comes out of the tunnel mounds.

In early morning: The northern portal where the smoke came out

5.15 AM, 27 Minutes a.i.

Two cars with firefighters arrive at the south and immediately drive inside. A strong airstream blows from their side up to the north so they can drive for 5 kilometers, leaving only 500 meters to the fire site. Thick smoke now fills the crossection. 2 men must run back as there are were only 6 pressure breathers in the equipment. Slowly they drove inside and almost immediately the view droped to zero. Firemen have to walk in these conditions in front of the firetruck to look for eventual bodies lying on the ground. Then several heavy explosions occured in the inpenetrable smoke, almost lifting the men from their feet. The heat gets so intense the men have to retreat to the next emergency phone, radio didn't work any longer. Here they get informed about the 3 people captured in the phone cell further on. The commander of the firefighters gets the order to switch to maximum extraction in the part the fire is while the other 3 sections of the tunnel receive maximum fresh air.

Above: A cut of the Tauern Tunnel. Above the road are the fresh and used air ducts. Here the heat and smoke can immediately be sucked off at the ceiling.

1 hour 2 minutes a.i.

The heat was reduced to the point the firemen could reach the trapped people in the phone cell. Just before the phone boot they found the body of the forth man, a 27 year old german. He was intoxicated by the gases. The 3 others received survival filter masks and were immediately brought outside

6.00 AM, 1 hour 12 minutes a.i.

More and more firefighters arrive, bringing heavy equipment. 170 men from 25 different corpses arrive at the north, 138 men from 8 corpses arrive from south. 2 infrared cameras who see through the smoke were used, an mobile generator with 28 kVA powered 23 light systems and 12 giant fans. The heat rises again, making every step forward painful for the 30 men who work their way from the north. 5 foam/water hoses were used to literally blow the way through the inferno. Wreck after wreck was extinguished under tremendous efforts (picture on top of the page).

The red cross installed at the resting place immediately in front of the northern portal an first aid camp. 90 people were rescued from the tunnel, 50 had to be transported immediately into hospitals. 2 helicopters and 25 ambulances made this possible.

9.00 AM, 4 hours 12 minutes a.i.

The first aid camp had to be evacuated in some minutes time as the smoke lying in the valley made respiration impossible.

10.00 AM, 5 hours 12 minutes a.i.


Large parts of concrete begin to fall from the ceiling. The heat has weakened the steel inside to the point it lost it's force. Then the concrete began to crumble under it's own weight. After some time it gets so dangerous the men must be withdrawn. It was now obvious that nobody couldn't be alive anymore inside the tunnel as about 1200° C / 1800° F were reached at the impact point. On a 700 meter long stretch 1000° C were constantly reached.

Parts of the the inner roof, walls and wrecks lie almost a meter high inside the tunnel.

11.00 AM, 6 hours 12 minutes a.i.

The wind changes direction giving the possibility of additional ventilation from the north. The temperatures begin slowly to drop.

One of the lorries as found

3.00 PM, 10 hours 12 minutes a.i.

The firemen start extinguishing from the north with an mobile foam trower.

The impact site showed the most damage. The heavy rail in the left was once part of the separation wall between fresh and used air ducts above the road. The heat was so intense the side walls crumbled down. The outside walls did survive quite well.

9.00 PM

The fire was out after 16 hours.

The heat was so intense the trailer chassis bent like cooked noodles.

Another fire

On January 10, 2000 another truck fire broke out in the Tauern Tunnel. Again same mistakes were made but this time all people managed to get out while the firefighters extinguished the fire.

The judgement

At the end of September the case was judged.

Below is what local newspapers had to report on the case.

DER SPIEGEL: Haftstrafe für Lkw-Fahrer

Der Lkw-Fahrer, der das Unglück im Tauerntunnel ausgelöst hat, muss für drei Monate ins Gefängnis. Die Richter verurteilten ihn zu zwei Jahren Haft, setzten jedoch 21 Monate davon zur Bewährung aus.


Salzburg - Das Gericht in Salzburg hat den 27-Jährigen Lkw-Fahrer der fahrlässigen Gefährdung der Allgemeinheit für schuldig befunden.
Der Lastwagen des Österreichers war in dem Tunnel in eine Fahrzeugkolonne gerast, die vor einer Baustelle gewartet hatte. Ein mit 24.000 Lackspraydosen beladener Lastwagen verwandelte die Tunnelröhre in kürzester Zeit in ein Flammeninferno. Große Teile der Tunneldecke stürzten ein. Die Opfer waren entweder auf der Stelle tot oder verbrannten eingeklemmt in ihren Fahrzeugen, wie Gutachter vor Gericht aussagten. Insgesamt kamen zwölf Menschen ums Leben, 50 wurden verletzt. Der Sachschaden lag in dreistelliger Millionenhöhe.

Grund für den Auffahrunfall war nach Ansicht des Gerichts Übermüdung des Angeklagten und zu hohe Geschwindigkeit. Die Verteidigung sah das Unglück dagegen als Verkettung unglücklicher Umstände. Sie wandte ein, eine Mitschuld treffe auch die Verantwortlichen für die Ampelanlage in dem Tunnel. Zusätzlich zu der Haftstrafe wurde der Angeklagte zu Schadensersatzzahlungen in Höhe von insgesamt rund 1,2 Millionen Schilling (rund 170.000 Mark/87.000 Euro) verurteilt. Weitere Forderungen von Geschädigten wurden auf den Zivilrechtsweg verwiesen.

Others reported:

Emotionen im Gerichtssaal, noch ehe der Prozess wegen "fahrlässiger Gemeingefährdung" überhaupt begonnen hat: Die Mutter eines der Todesopfer beschimpft den Angeklagten lauthals. Dann wird es sachlich. Der Staatsanwalt listet die Fakten auf: Nach einer 488-km-Fahrt von Bologna, vor der er nur knapp fünf Stunden geschlafen hatte, war der 28-jährige Oberösterreicher vor einer Baustellenampel im Tunnel auf eine wartende Fahrzeugkolonne aufgefahren. Vier Autos waren dabei auf einen weiter vorn stehenden Schwertransporter gedrückt und völlig zerquetscht worden. Durch einen mit 24.000 Lackspraydosen beladenen Lastwagen kam es dann zur Flammenhölle im Tunnel. Dem Angeklagten wird vorgeworfen, dass er mit dem 34 Tonnen schweren Laster übermüdet und unaufmerksam unterwegs gewesen sei, möglicherweise sei Sekundenschlaf der Auslöser für das Unglück gewesen. Der Ankläger hält Alfred B. aber auch zugute, dass er mehreren Menschen das Leben gerettet hat, indem er sie aus dem Tunnel schickte. Er hätte auch noch nach einem Feuerlöscher gesucht, ehe er selbst im Qualm zusammenbrach. B. war die Strecke zwei bis vier Mal pro Woche gefahren, geheuer war ihm der Tunnel nie gewesen. Von Richterin Gabriele Staindl zum Unfallhergang selbst befragt: "Ich kann mich nur daran erinnern, dass ich in den Tunnel eingefahren bin und dann erst wieder, wie ich ausgestiegen bin. Ich habe oft versucht, mich zu erinnern." Er sei aber nicht müde gewesen. Alle Spuren wurden vom Feuer zerstört. Verteidiger Karl Wagner kritisiert die Absicherung der Tunnelbaustelle, aber die Staatsanwaltschaft hat das alles geprüft und bei den Betreibern keine Versäumnisse finden können. Auch am Fahrzeug seien keine Defekte festzustellen gewesen. Der Prozess wird heute fortgesetzt.

Der Angeklagte erklärte, er könne sich nicht an den Unfall erinnern. Er sei hineingefahren und dann wisse er nichts mehr, sagte er in einem Bericht des Österreichischen Rundfunks (ORF). Die Staatsanwaltschaft geht davon aus, dass der Lastwagenfahrer eingeschlafen und mit einer Geschwindigkeit von 50 Kilometern pro Stunde ungebremst auf die vor einer Ampel wartende Kolonne geprallt ist. Er soll auf der Rückfahrt von Italien zuvor nur vier Stunden geschlafen haben. Der Zusammenstoß, auf den der Großbrand folgte, ereignete sich kurz vor fünf Uhr früh. Acht Menschen dürften nach Angaben der Österreichischen Autobahn- und Schnellstraßen AG (ÖSAG) unmittelbar bei dem Auffahrunfall gestorben sein, bei dem vier Pkw zwischen zwei Lastwagen zusammengedrückt wurden. Dabei sei vermutlich Treibstoff aus den Tanks ausgelaufen und habe sich entzündet. Zudem sei der mit Lacksprühdosen beladene Lastwagen rasch in Flammen aufgegangen. Ein deutscher Fernfahrer sei 800 Meter von der Unfallstelle entfernt auf der Flucht erstickt, heißt es im Bericht der ÖSAG: Zwei Personen aus Belgien seien umgekommen, weil sie ihren Wagen nicht verließen. Ein griechischer Fernfahrer sei, nachdem er bereits in Sicherheit gewesen sei, in den Tunnel zurückgekehrt, um Dokumente zu holen. Er habe deshalb nicht überlebt.


Last updated 20.02.2001