Sometimes when a vehicle accident occurs, one or both vehicles catch on fire. It is almost to be expected periodically, but it is almost never expected to be catastrophic. Nevertheless, on November 2, 1982, such an accident occurred in the Salang Tunnel in Afghanistan, and it cost 3,000 people their lives. Most of the victims were Soviet soldiers traveling to Kabul.
The entrance into Afghanistan by the Soviet Union that year was disastrous in nearly every way, but possibly the worst single incident was the Salang Tunnel explosion. At the time of the crash, a long army convoy was traveling from Russia to Kabul through the border city of Hairotum. The route took the convoy through the Salang Tunnel, which is 1.7 miles long, 25 feet high and approximately 17 feet wide. The tunnel is one of the world’s highest at an altitude of 11,000 feet. It was built by the Soviets in the 1970s.
As was common in those days, the Soviet army kept a tight lid on the story. It is believed that an army vehicle collided with a fuel truck about half way through the long tunnel. When the fuel truck exploded, about 30 buses carrying soldiers were immediately blown up. Fire in the tunnel spread quickly and the survivors of the blast began to panic. The ensuing chaos made the military stationed at the ends of the tunnel believe the explosion was part of an attack. As per protocol for terrorist attacks, the military stationed at both ends of the tunnel stopped traffic from exiting. If the fire wasn’t enough, the idling cars in the tunnel caused the levels of carbon monoxide in the air to increase drastically, The fire continued to spread as well. Exacerbating the situation, the tunnel’s ventilation system had broken down a couple of days earlier, resulting in further casualties from burns and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Rescue and recovery was slow due to the lack of safe working conditions for rescue crews. It took several days for workers to reach all the bodies in the tunnel. To make matters worse, the Soviet army limited the information released about the disaster, so we may never know the full extent of the tragedy. While the fire and carbon monoxide poisonings were tragic in and of themselves, the fact that the military thought the accident might be a terrorist attack, really caused the massive amounts of death. The people in the tunnel were trapped, and there was no ventilation. They couldn’t get away from the death enveloping them on all sides. I’m sure there was panic and screaming, making the chaos even worse. The very thought of all those people trapped in that tunnel makes me feel nauseous, and I’m sure that if the Soviets kept it under wraps, there were families who never knew what happened to their loved ones.