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Hsuehshan Tunnel passes its first serious safety test, but only barely

The China Post--The Hsuehshan Tunnel linking New Taipei City and Yilan, the world's fifth longest tunnel, faced its first real trial in Monday's fatal pileup. A truck sandwiched between two tour buses burst into flames, killing the driver and his wife. Two dozen people were injured, two of them seriously.

 Since the tunnel inaugurated in 2006, fire has been regarded the biggest potential threat to the 12.9-km structure. Some of the world's worst tunnel accidents were caused by fire, including the 1999 Mont Blanc tragedy that killed 41 and the Kaprun disaster that killed 155 in 2000.

 Monday's accident was the most serious in the Hsuehshan Tunnel and the first that has the potential become a major disaster. While the two deaths and two-dozen injured victims are still too much to accept and should lead the authorities to look for ways to improve safety measures at the tunnel, there are reasons to believe the tunnel has passed (barely) its first real test. The two fatalities and two serious injuries would probably have occurred had the crash taken place outside the tunnel. The fire in the enclosed structure did not add to the body count.

 “Barely” is the operating word. The safety measures at the tunnel such as the air ventilation system, the emergency lights, the underground safety shafts as well as the response team all functioned together to carry out the evacuation of people trapped inside the tunnel.

 There were, however, moments of confusion and malfunctions according to victims' accounts. One of the safety shafts that were all supposed to be air-tight was filled with smoke. The MOEA later explained that was because the victims “forgot to close the door.” The mechanism of an emergency measure should not depend on confused victims to function properly (such as remembering to close a door in the middle of a disaster).

 There are reports of drivers making about turns and driving in reverse to get out of the tunnel, a dangerous deviation from the vehicle evacuation plan. There were also complaints about the lack of control and information at the time of the accident. These are all major problems which must be addressed.

In short, the hardware of the tunnel has mostly stood up to the challenge but the software of emergency response has been found wanting. Improvements to the system should and must be made.

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