Today, after 20 years of digging by some 2,500 workers, 8 of whom lost their lives, Swiss engineers blasted through the last bit of rock to create the world's longest tunnel. The accomplishment even made macho Swiss miners cry.
Stretching 35.4 miles under central Switzerland, the Gotthard Base Tunnel was conceived in 1947 as a more efficient conduit for transporting goods from all corners of Europe, specifically those moving between the port of Genoa in Italy and the Dutch port city of Rotterdam.
The massive drill machine dubbed "Sissi" blasted through the last six feet of rock this morning, amidst cheers, fireworks, and trumpets (really!). Eduard Baer, the foreman for the job, said it was "the most wonderful moment in [his] 36 years of tunnel building."
Peter Fueglistaler, the director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, got really real about what the tunnel meant for Switzerland: "We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional."
And they have good reason to be: it was a bitch to make. Der Spiegel outlined some of the technical difficulties of building this mega tunnel:
In the drilling of the tunnels, workers relied on eight gigantic, 3,000-ton tunnel drilling machines simultaneously. "An exceptional logistical plan" was necessary, says [tunnel construction expert Markus] Thewes. An 800-meter-long shaft was drilled vertically into the mountain, for example, so that workers could begin working in the middle of the tunnel.
Often, though, the outsized drilling machines provided little help. In zones where the rock was particularly brittle, workers were forced to use more traditional methods, such as explosives. Zones of stone that had been crushed to bits as the Alps formed proved to be particularly problematic.
"Nobody has ever worked in such material at such a depth," says geo-technician Georgios Anagnostou, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.