EDITOR'S NOTE: If industrial fires were ranked by degree of difficulty, the November 1996 Eurotunnel fire would top the charts at number one with a bullet. The English and the French may not be able to come together about many things but, thankfully, fire fighting isn’t one of them.
Imagine fighting a fire while confined to a walkway no more than 2½-feet wide. That walkway is so hot it burns your feet despite the heavy leather boots you are wearing. You inch along with a single hose line against a fire burning at more than 2,500 degrees F. Heated concrete above your head shatters and rains down debris whenever the water touches it.
Now, imagine that half the firefighters battling this blaze speak a different language. You have a perfect picture of what it was like to fight the British-French Eurotunnel fire 12 miles from the French coast and 300 feet below the floor of the English Channel.
The language barrier between the French and English firefighters is something that has been overcome by hard work and a strict command structure. Michel Rouaix, commander of the French Eurotunnel Fire Brigade, took charge of the combined French and English force that attacked the fire.
“The most important thing is not what we are to say but what we are to do,” Rouaix said. “We have special training together. We are the first line, the French and U.K. team, and we are very well trained.”
William Welsh, a commander with the Kent Fire Brigade in England, led the English firefighters under the overall command of Rouaix.
“As luck would have it the French commander and myself are quite good friends,” Welsh said. “We train on a regular basis with our French colleagues.”
When training together, the French and English firefighters try to keep language to a minimum, Welsh said. The key is to limit verbal communication to the commanders only.
The Calais and Kent firefighters share responsibility for fire protection inside one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century. Since the time of Napoleon, a tunnel beneath the English Channel has been a dream of European leaders. Opened 2½ years ago, Eurotunnel is a 32-mile underwater link between Calais in France and Folkestone in England. It consists of three tunnels, two of which carry the high-speed passenger and freight shuttles, while the third is used as a service tunnel for maintenance purposes. Before Eurotunnel, all traffic between England and France traveled by ferry or airplane.
On Nov. 18, 1996, that age old dream of engineers and politicians became a nightmare for firefighters. A fire started near the rear of an England-bound freight shuttle train traveling at 80 mph and carrying tractor-trailer rigs (known in England as HGVs or heavy goods vehicles) loaded with cargo. The shuttle made an emergency stop, allowing passengers to be evacuated into the service tunnel parallel to the southbound rail tunnel carrying the train. With the fire now concentrated in one part of the running tunnel, the burning HGVs soon became an inferno. Because of the intense heat, firefighters worked in shifts of no more than15 minutes. All this was going on inside a tightly confined tunnel only 7.6 meters (22 feet) in diameter.
Nearly 200 firefighters – half French, the other half English – battled the blaze. By the time it was extinguished 12 hours later, it had stripped away as much as 16 inches of the tunnel’s 20-inch thick concrete lining over a distance of 30 meters (120 feet). Overhead power lines, water and air pipes and the very rails themselves were warped and twisted out of shape. Of the 10 HGVs that burned, all were reduced to misshaped lumps of once molten metal.
By mid-December, train service had resumed, but a 600-meter (1,800 foot) section of the southbound tunnel remained closed.
Ionization smoke detectors and an opacimeter monitoring visibility picked up the fire, Rouaix said. However, this was not a confirmed alarm. The first alarm confirming the presence of smoke, flame and carbon monoxide was not until the shuttle was 10 kilometers (6 miles) into the tunnel, he said. This was about 9:45 p.m., French time.
Passenger cars used by Eurotunnel are sealed compartments for safety sake. Passengers ride in what is basically a fire box on wheels. However, HGVs travel in skeletal semi-open carriages with lattice-work walls. The design, which reduces the weight that the 6,000 horsepower electric-powered locomotives must pull, has been long criticized by Kent Fire Brigade officials because it permits the passing 80 mph wind to fan any flames to escape into the tunnel itself, said Welsh.
“Lets just say that our biggest concern has always been that if there was a fire on board one of those shuttles then that would cause our biggest problems,” Welsh said. “That’s because it’s going to be straight into the running tunnel. It’s not confined at all. Any fire on board any one of those tractor-trailer units would be able to spread from one to the other to the other. That’s exactly what happened. And we’ve always voiced our concern about that. But a decision was made, not by us, that it was safe to carry these vehicles this way and that the drivers and crew would be safe in their amenity coach because that’s in a fire box, if you like. They were allowed to go ahead with it.”
About this time the first alarm aboard the train sounded. Emile Grard, the chef de train in charge of the shuttle, found thick acrid smoke pouring into the amenity coach, the train car where truck drivers making the 30-minute crossing with their vehicles congregate. The locomotive driver, Edouard Bougard, had three options. In the event of fire, drivers are supposed to travel at high speed to the closest terminal at either end of the tunnel, where emergency bays are equipped with high-pressure foam dispensers.
“Normally, even if we have a fire inside the shuttle and the shuttle is inside the tunnel, the best thing is to continue, always,” Rouaix said. “Because in fact it is always difficult to fight a fire inside the tunnel and if we have a chance to get it outside it is the best chance we have.”
Failing that, Bougard could uncouple the lead locomotive and the amenity coach and abandon the burning portion of the train. The third option Bougard faced was the least favored of the three, Welsh said.
“The third option, which they would only do if the other two options weren’t possible, is evacuate all the people on board the amenity coach into the service tunnel,” Welsh said.
Rouaix said an alarm sounded in the locomotive that obliged the engineer to stop and investigate. Then things started going seriously wrong.
“Afterwards, the drivers of the lorries – we cannot explain why – but they had smoke inside the amenity coach,” Rouaix said. “They had to wait about 10 minutes before going out of the amenity coach to be saved in the service tunnel.”
By design, smoke should never have entered the amenity coach. That defect is now under serious investigation, Rouaix said.
“It’s very important to learn that for the safety of the future,” he said.
Five hundred meters (1,500 feet) separated the amenity coach at the front of the train from the fire at the rear. Several factors forced the smoke forward almost the full length of the tunnel. The natural movement of the shuttle through the tunnel meant it was dragging the smoke along with it, Welsh said. A freight train four kilometers (2 ½ miles) behind the shuttle would have been pushing the air in the tunnel forward. Another England-bound train traveling ahead of the shuttle was creating suction that might have helped drag the smoke over the amenity car.
In stopping the train, Bougard positioned it with reference to the cross passage doors located every 375 meters along the service tunnel. One door was near the front of the train, only 20 or 30 meters (60 to 90 feet) from the amenity coach. Another cross passage door was near the middle of the train and a third was near the rear.
The tunnel is a tight fit at the best of times. Clearance above the train is only about two feet, Welsh said. The flames rising from the burning HGVs quickly destroyed the electrical pickups in the roof of the tunnel and cut power to the entire section.
“Grard opened the back door of the amenity coach only to find the tunnel full of smoke,” Welsh said. “Bougard then tried to uncouple the amenity coach and locomotive, but by that time the fire was already so bad they had lost electric power.”
The only option left was evacuation. Thirty-five passengers and crew escaped into the service tunnel with eight suffering serious smoke inhalation.
“The service tunnel is a safe haven,” Welsh said. “It is slightly overpressurized at all times to keep any smoke out. They can actually increase the ventilation in there to even greater speeds to make sure that if you open some of the doors and there is a raging fire on the other side it keeps the combustion elements from coming into the tunnel.”
About that time – 18 mintues into the emergency – the first French firefighters arrived. Fire stations built and equipped by the Eurotunnel consortium are found at either end of the tunnel. The station in England is always staffed by eight firefighters from the Kent Fire Brigade by contract with Eurotunnel. Likewise, the station at the French end is always staffed by eight firefighters from the Calais Fire Brigade. These stations are known as FLOR or first line of response. Rouaix commands the French station.
“We have many, many special things,” Rouaix said. “The most important is a special vehicle (STTS or Service Tunnel Transport System) which is very narrow and very long. It is 10 meters long (30 feet) and no more than 1.4 meters (4 feet) wide. It is very narrow because the service tunnel is very narrow.” The service tunnel is only 4.8 meters (13 feet) wide.
These specially-built Mercedes vehicles have a cab at either end and are used for transporting personnel and equipment. When Rouaix and the French firefighters arrived, the first priority was to care for the injured. The eight people suffering from smoke inhalation were taken to France for treatment via STTS ambulance. The rest of the passengers and crew were loaded aboard a shuttle in the other running tunnel and also taken to France.
Firefighters from the station at the English mouth of the tunnel arrived 25 minutes into the emergency. It was originally thought that the shuttle would continue through and that the English firefighters would deal with the fire above ground, Welsh said. With the French firefighters busy with the injured, the English firefighters were asked to make a search of the train because it was mistakenly believed that one of the drivers was still missing.
Part of the procedure in evacuating a shuttle is for the driver to ask the rail control center to reconfigure ventilation in the running tunnel. Large fans located on either the French or U.K. side can be used to either push or pull. Ventilation was reconfigured to push the smoke back from the amenity coach to the rear of the train, Welsh said. However, that process takes time. Most important, any train traffic behind the shuttle must be evacuated.
“In this case it was a freight train with one driver,” Welsh said. “They had to stop him, radio him to get out of the cab and into the service tunnel. Otherwise, the air would have just pushed all this smoke down on top of him. Although he was four kilometers (2½ miles) away it would have soon traveled.”
Smoke was clearing from the front of the train. The English firefighters found that the amenity coach was empty. Pressing themselves between the train and the tunnel wall, they began inching toward the rear of the shuttle along the 2 ½-foot tunnel walkway that runs about three feet above the train’s wheels.
“They traveled about 350 meters (1,400 feet) and suddenly realized there was something really wrong because the heat was severe,” Welsh said. “They started coming across debris where large electrical cables had collapsed from the roof of the tunnel. By this time it was completely black with smoke. They started to realize just by the heat alone that there was a real problem somewhere and they’d better back out and wait for the reinforcements to come.”
The second line of response – firefighters from other stations in the Calais Fire Brigade – began arriving. These firefighters moved to the middle cross passage door and opened it. The fire was still further to the rear of the train. With the help of the ventilation system to push the smoke back, the French firefighters began their attack.
The French external services that provided the second line of response – fire brigade, police and ambulance – were notified by Eurotunnel almost immediately. However, the Kent Fire Brigade, other than the eight member first response team, was not notified of the fire until 51 minutes into the emergency, Welsh said. He was among the first Kent firefighters to arrive. Because the fire was located in the French half of the tunnel, Rouaix had overall jurisdiction as the incident commander. Rouaix and Welsh conferred on the best strategy to combat the fire.
“I’ve been trying to learn French,” Welsh said. “I’m not very good. But fortunately Michel Rouaix speaks fairly good English. But we had to limit communication between the firefighters to just between us two. There are not many French firefighters who speak English and vice versa.”
“Another alternative in communication is by radio through the special command center for emergencies maintained at either end of the tunnel. Above ground, the English and French centers are in constant communication with each other via translators. Below ground, Rouaix and Welsh were in constant communication with their respective command centers.
“If there was ever any problem with the language, I would have had to go to my command center above ground who would have gone to their opposites in France who would have then come back to the commander underground,” Welsh said. “We practice that and it does work.”
Welsh suggested that he take his forces to the cross passage door closest to the rear of the shuttle and fight the fire from there. Rouaix agreed. But Welsh admitted to being apprehensive about opening that door.
“Now the reason I say apprehensive is that we didn’t know what we were going to find,” Welsh said. “We knew at that end there was a big fire going on but we didn’t know what sort of fire and we didn’t know if it had reached near the end of the shuttle where we were going to open this door.”
In theory, the higher pressure inside the service tunnel would create a bubble effect that would protect anyone standing in the doorway from the fire on the other side. Still, the firefighters were concerned about having to put the theory into practice under such extreme conditions. Rouaix ordered that the hydraulically-operated four-hour fire doors be opened manually rather than electronically, allowing the firefighters to open the doors more slowly and check out the danger.
“When we opened this cross passage door, because all of us had been down there in exercises we know what it can do,” Welsh said. “We steadied ourselves. I’m not exaggerating when I say if you had been standing there unaware of what was going to happen you would have been blown into the fire. I’ve stood there on exercises when they’ve opened those doors and people’s hard hats were blown straight off and gone shooting into the running tunnel.”
The theory worked. That was good news and bad news. The firefighters were protected when they slowly opened the doors. All the firefighters could see inside was a wall of flame all the way across the tunnel.
“All of these large tractor-trailer units in this area were on fire,” Welsh said. “The large electrical cables that feed the shuttle had come down. There were large cables falling across the door and, within a very short number of second, the concrete started to explode and come at us like bloody shrapnel.”
The same system that protected the firefighters from the fire was now feeding it oxygen.
“The example I gave was that when we opened the door it was like opening the door to a large furnace and standing there with your foot on the bellows, pumping away while you’re trying to put the fire out,” Welsh said. “Because of the need to have the ventilation systems to keep the smoke and fire from coming into the service tunnel you’re actually fanning the fire all the time.”
Adding a further degree of difficulty to the situation was that the ventilation system was working overtime to push the smoke back from the front of the train and over the English firefighters. Close communication between Rouaix and Welsh became critical. The English firefighters need to know exactly what the French were doing at their position midway along the train and how it would affect them at the rear. Because of the heat and fumes, Kent firefighters fought the blaze in relays of eight or 10, while other colleagues rested further down the tunnel away from danger.
The heavy smoke made self-contained breathing apparatus a necessity. The English firefighters alone used more than 200 breathing apparatus cylinders. The French, who were on site for two days managing the fire and clean-up, used 450 of the eight-liter cylinders, 300 of them on the first day.
Overhead, the concrete continued to rain down. The phenomenon is known as spaulding. The heat of the fire was so intense that the surrounding concrete would expand and then explode when any water hit it.
“When the concrete started to explode there was obvious concern about the roof structure itself,” Welsh said. “The heat and smoke were such that you could hear this exploding but you couldn’t see what was happening. I don’t think that at any time we were concerned that the sea would suddenly come rushing in. But there was always concern that large lumps of concrete would start falling down.”
Most of the fire was under control by 6 a.m. French time the next morning. Still, it would be another five hours before the fire was completely out.
The fire loading from 10 tractor-trailer rigs burned right down to the chassis is staggering. Still, Welsh said he has a hard time accepting the amount of damage done considering the cargoes carried by the HGVs were mostly nonflammable.
“One was a cargo of cheese,” Welsh said. “You know, the slices that are all individually wrapped. Well, there was just this warp of cheese that had melted. There were pineapples and polystyrene packaging, but nothing highly flammable.”
Rouaix said Eurotunnel has strict guidelines forbidding hazardous materials inside the tunnel.
“We never have to fight against chemical materials because there are many rules against chemicals and especially dangerous goods,” Rouaix said.
Being able to communicate in the same language does not mean that two firefighters ever agree on everything. As a senior divisional officer with the eastern division of the Kent Fire Brigade, Welsh commands 22 fire stations. His operational division – the largest in the brigade –includes two nuclear power stations and one of the busiest passenger ports in Europe, Dover Harbor. And, yet, with 18 years experience with the brigade, Welsh classified the Eurotunnel fire as one of the worst he ever fought.
“The sheer magnitude of the fire, the length of the fire and the problems associated with it being in a tunnel made it unique,” Welsh said. “I’ve had some very hot fires, some very dicey fires where we’ve nearly lost people, but this was the hardest fire to fight because of the ventilation problems. It was so restricted because you couldn’t hit it from all sides. It was frustrating and very concerning to send people in not knowing what they were going into because you just couldn’t see anything.”
However, Rouaix, who has 25 years as a French firefighter, said the Eurotunnel fire was by no means the most complicated he has ever managed. He said he has been the officer in charge in battling many forest fires and that he found that kind of fire fighting more demanding.
“This was not like a normal tunnel with one entrance, one exit, no ventilation, no fire main, no detection system, nothing,” Rouaix said. “It was not too difficult to manage this fire. I have known many larger fires. This was not the most important or most difficult to fight. It was a special fire with special rules to make sure all the firefighters were always safe.”
● Emergency planning is backed by carefully considered reasoning. Actions by the train crew not in keeping with that plan exacerbated what was already a life-or-death situation.
● Kent firefighters were long on record as opposing the open design of the railroad cars hauling cargo vehicles. Another design flaw that became readily apparent was placing the shuttle’s power pickups in the roof of the tunnel where they were most vulnerable to fire. Clearly, fire protection did not receive the attention it deserved from the tunnel’s designers.
● Almost an hour’s delay in contacting the Kent Fire Brigade indicates a very serious breakdown in communications.