The series examines the issues surrounding major international incidents, combining dramatic reconstructions and commentary from experts and witnesses to ask if these were preventable accidents or catastrophes waiting to happen. All raise issues of accountability and regulation, and reflect on how major institutions implement procedures for managing risk.


On November 18th, 1996 34 people were trapped in dense smoke and darkness in a railway carriage while a fire raged around them for thirty long minutes. The carriage was 150 feet below the Channel and 12 miles from shore. It was the stuff of nightmares.

It brings tears to the eyes of George Fennel whenever he talks about his ordeal. After the fire he suffered from panic attacks and had to give up his job as a long-distance lorry driver. As he says, 'it turns your life upside down'.

George and 33 other people, mostly lorry drivers, were settling down in the lounge car as the train moved into the English end of the tunnel. Open-sided coaches, or 'rakes', carried their HGVs.

It was at that point the clock started ticking. But the fire crews, the guard and driver on board, and the control centre personnel stumbled upon problem after problem. The driver was unable to decouple the burning rakes after power was lost. Communication lines went down. Fans designed to clear the smoke were not turned on in time. No-one seemed to know where the train had stopped. The fire crews were directed to the wrong door. Toxic smoke from burning tyres and diesel fuel severely debilitated those on board. Hydrants were damaged which delayed the fire crews even further.

The fire raged for six hours. It took nearly 450 French and British firemen, working in relays, to eventually kill the flames. They later described it as "like a blow torch"; in fact, part of the train was welded to the track and the fabric of the tunnel itself was severely damaged.

Fire officer David Thomas recalls a previous fire in the tunnel in December 1994. This was described as a 'car fire' by Eurotunnel. However, David says "after a great deal of research I found that the damage was much greater than Eurotunnel had tried to make out. It was so severe that although there was only one car in a five car compartment, that compartment was totally gutted and the walls had cable duct hanging down".

Dr Herbert Eisner, who gave evidence to Select Committees when the tunnel was being built, says "the possibility that there could at peak periods be some 12,000 people in the tunnel altogether is a risk that should not be taken… total disaster in this particular case was almost certainly avoided through luck".

That is no comfort to George Fennel. Many of the victims were hospitalised. Some, like George, have suffered long-term psychological damage. The fire still casts a shadow over their lives.

George says; "what's going through your mind is everything's going to be all right. Then it suddenly hits you that it's not".

Just before the train's departure the fire started under one of the lorries. Given the signal to leave, the driver set off unaware of the danger.

The Channel Tunnel Safety Authority had warned as early as 1991 that "…a fire starting on a semi-open shuttle train…would be propagated by the tunnel air flow and spread down the train…"

© BBC Television / Stone City Films© BBC Television / Stone City Films© BBC Television / Stone City Films© BBC Television / Stone City Films© BBC Television / Stone City Films

© BBC Television / Stone City Films.

Filming of 'DISASTER' in Crewe 14 & 15 July 1997

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Last Revised: 29.10.2021 9:17
by R G Latham
© 1997