The difficult and dangerous Salang Pass crosses the Hindu Kush mountain range that bisects Afghanistan, traditionally making travel between southern and northern regions a laborious process, particularly in winter. But one useful legacy of the Soviet Union’s aggressive interest in Afghanistan was the Salang Tunnel, providing all-weather vehicular passage beneath the forbidding pass. This engineering marvel is 2.6 km (1.5 mi) long at the lofty altitude of 3,400 m (11,150 ft) and upon completion in 1964 greatly facilitated north-south travel, cutting the journey time to ten hours from three days. It also greatly improved communications between the Soviet Union and the Afghan capital, Kabul.
But this was a legacy that turned to ashes – literally. The tunnel became a vital strategic facility during the Soviet-Afghan War that erupted in 1979, allowing Soviet military traffic to move freely both ways. In November 1982, a Soviet army convoy travelling south was engulfed by fire, in a catastrophe that may well be one of the most disastrous conflagrations the world has ever seen. But the world didn’t see and will never know for sure, as the Red Army wasn’t about to announce details of such a terrible reverse to comfort its enemies during a hard-fought war.
The fire may have resulted from a mujaheddin operation, as these fearsome guerrilla fighters frequently mounted ambushes on tunnel traffic. However, the general consensus suggests a fuel tanker exploded after a collision within the tunnel, with the resulting flash fire made infinitely more serious by the tunnel’s narrow confines – its tube being just 7 m (22 ft) wide and tall. There were a considerable number of Afghan casualties – certainly over 100 – although the Russian death toll remains a closely guarded secret to this day. But the true figure may well have run into the thousands.
When was the Salang Tunnel Fire: November 3 1982
Where was the Salang Tunnel Fire: Hindu Kush Mountains, Afghanistan
What was the Salang Tunnel Fire death toll: Unknown. The top estimate is 2,750 dead, mainly Red Army soldiers, but this is pure speculation. However, it is generally accepted that the casualty figure does put this tragic event right at the top of any list of all-time fire-related disasters.
You should know: The Soviet cover-up was comprehensive. In a fit of apparent candor, it was officially announced that there had been a collision in the Salang Tunnel between two military convoys numbered 2211 and 2212, causing a serious traffic blockage. This led to the deaths of 64 soldiers and 112 Afghanis through a build-up of carbon monoxide, but of course there was definitely no fire or explosion.