Swiss press question safety of crash tunnel

The Swiss press on Thursday raised questions about the safety of the tunnel where a coach crashed and killed 22 school children and six adults from Belgium as they returned from a
skiing holiday.

The daily Blick set the tone, with a big black cross on the front page.

The mass circulation newspaper said words could not express the pain of the victims’ families, noting that Tuesday, March 13th, when the accident occurred, would be “a black day for the history of our country.”

Le Matin wrote  that “they should have gone home yesterday,” but instead the children’s parents had to come to Switzerland to retrieve the injured ones or to identify the victims’ bodies.

The newspapers also raised questions about the 100-kilometre (60-mile) speed limit inside the tunnel and the design of the emergency stop area where the fatal crash occurred.

Geneva-based Le Temps asked, “Will the speed limit be lowered for heavy vehicles or will the design of the emergency stop areas be modified?”

A spokesman for the federal roads service (Ofrou) did not rule out that the accident would lead to a re-think about the right-angle shape of the spots where vehicles can pull over in an emergency.

“For the moment, the emergency stop areas have this shape as called for by regulations,” said Antonello Laveglia.

“It’s clear that with what has happened, it’s not ruled out that something will be re-discussed or changed,” he said. “The accident is an occassion to think further on this topic.”

The Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger said that the design of the emergency area was common in Swiss tunnels, but said that this could be re-visited as “due to that wall, a collision has occurred.”

The bus had entered the motorway tunnel which has a speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour and, for reasons still unknown, it hit the curb on the right side of the roadway and struck the emergency stop’s concrete wall head-on.

The 2.5-kilometre Sierre tunnel was built in 1999 and has the most modern ventilation standards, emergency exits, signaling and energy supply and conforms with all safety regulations, Laveglia said.

The coach, which was carrying 52 passengers, was travelling from the Val d’Anniviers ski resort towards the Swiss town of Sion on the A9 motorway when the accident happened at 9.15pm Tuesday (2015 GMT).

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Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert

Due to the heavy snowfall in recent days and more expected until the weekend, an avalanche warning is issued for Switzerland’s southern canton of Valais.

Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert
Avalanche warnings should be taken very seriously. Photo by AFP

Valais authorities said the current avalanche risk level is between 4 and 5, meaning ‘high’ to ‘extreme’.

The population is urged to stay at home. When out, they should obey the signs and especially stay away from the avalanche corridors, officials warned.

Significant amounts of snow have fallen in the area in recent days, dumping 1 metre of snow above the altitude of 2,000 metres in the upper part of the canton. Between 30 and 40 centimetres are still expected. 

The highest risk of avalanches is in the Goms valley, the Zermatt valley, as well as the entire right bank of the Rhône. 

Some particularly threatened areas could even be evacuated, authorities said.

People planning to go skiing in Valais over the next few days should check snow conditions and avalanche warnings in place, especially as many roads, mainly in Upper Valais, are cut off, and a number of villages in the Goms Valley, Lötschental and the Zermatt region are no longer accessible by road or train. 

The Avalanche Bulletin is a good source of information not just for Valais, but for all of Switzerland’s mountain regions.

READ MORE: Is the pandemic to blame for Switzerland's spate of avalanche deaths? 

Avalanches have been particularly deadly in Switzerland this winter, having claimed 14 lives so far — well above the average yearly figure of eight people.

Avalanches have caused casualties in the mountains of Valais, Vaud, Graubünden, Obwalden and Schwyz. 

With many people concerned about the potential for contracting coronavirus on the slopes, the idea of skiing off piste has become more attractive. 

But this practice can trigger massive avalanches, so it is crucial to stay away from unsecured slopes.

READ MORE: Large crowds on Swiss ski slopes spark concern over coronavirus spread