Transatlantic District-North and N.M. native engineer designs repairs for deadly Afghanistan tunnel
October 16, 2012
By Paul Giblin
Quirici, 38, who serves as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kabul, worked with a small team of engineers to devise specifications for the repairs to the smoke-choked tunnel through the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Afghanistan.
Corps of Engineers officials awarded a $12.8 million construction contract on Sept. 22 to Omran Holding Group, a construction firm based in Bagram, Afghanistan. The scope of work specified by Quirici and his team includes resurfacing, drainage, lighting, ventilation and more to refurbish the aged tunnel.
The 1.6-mile tunnel is vital to the country's economy and transportation system, but the 48-year-old Soviet-built passageway under the snowy Salang Pass is badly deteriorated.
The road within the tunnel is a cratered jumble of powdery dust, mud and broken asphalt. Water seeps through the tunnel's walls and pools on the road. The overhead lights are dim, leaving the passageway dark 24 hours a day.
Repairing the tunnel is a high-priority job, said Army Col. Alfred A. Pantano Jr., who is the commander of the Corps of Engineers' district based in Kabul, the Transatlantic District-North. "There's a huge amount of traffic and commerce that comes through there. It's a major thoroughfare for the country at large," Pantano said.
Environmental conditions, overuse and reckless driving habits contribute to deaths and delays at the tunnel, which is the only supply route open year-round between the northern region of the country and Kabul, a city of about 4.5 million people.
A rutted dirt road leading to the tunnel zigzags along precarious rocky cliffs, which are covered in snow six months a year. Carcasses of vehicles that had either driven off the road or had been pushed off by avalanches rust hundreds of feet below the road's edge. The road features long concrete canopies called galleries that are designed to shield vehicles from tons of falling snow and rocks, however catastrophic avalanches and other disasters trap and kill motorists in the tunnel and along the road with haunting regularity.
Among the most deadly tragedies:
--,A series of avalanches in 2010 killed at least 64 people and perhaps 166 or more, according to various reports. Some of the victims died of asphyxiation or cold while trapped inside the tunnel. Others were buried in their vehicles.
--,An avalanche in 2002 killed at least five people, according to news accounts.
--,A tanker truck explosion during a Soviet military convoy in 1982 killed at least 172 people, and perhaps as many as 900 or even 3,000, according to wildly conflicting published accounts. The fiery explosion may have been triggered by a collision or a bomb, but the Soviets never publically confirmed the cause, nor the number of victims.
Haze created by dust and exhaust usually limits visibility to five feet. It's so thick that motorists who drive through the tunnel keep their windows rolled up when they're inside, and roll them down after they exit to release exhaust fumes that seeped into their vehicles anyway.
In addition, water is a problem. The tunnel bores underneath a lake and snow-capped peaks. Drains to channel the water within the tunnel are inoperable.
Aggressive drivers pose serious threats. Afghan authorities usually ban two-way traffic in the two-lane tunnel, because drivers who tried to pass one another drove into head-on collisions or maneuvered into front bumper-to-front bumper standoffs, blocking movement for hours.
Instead, authorities typically allow traffic in just one direction at a time, alternating in 12-hour shifts. Still, Afghan truck drivers sometimes try to pass each other inside the narrow tunnel, wedging their rigs against the curved ceiling and sloping walls.
To complicate matters, the tunnel's width and height are inconsistent. It's about 20 feet wide and 16 feet high at its tightest. The surface inside the tunnel is so uneven, trucks sometimes tip over.
Hundreds, even thousands, of trucks park alongside the dirt road for miles approaching both openings of the tunnel because of delays that can last for a week or longer. Drivers typically sleep in their trucks, not wanting to leave their rigs and lose their places in line.
The tunnel was designed for 1,000 vehicles a day, but 4,000 or more trucks, buses and cars use it every day, according to a study in June by the Afghan Ministry of Public Works.
Traffic increased significantly when Pakistan closed its border to Afghanistan for seven months in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. The closure halted passage of NATO supplies from Pakistan's deep-water ports into landlocked Afghanistan.
Instead, coalition forces trucked in supplies through Afghanistan's northern neighbors, such as Uzbekistan, and through the tunnel south to Kabul, Kandahar and other points. Pakistan reopened its border in early July, but by then, road had been beaten into further disrepair, said Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Gerdes, who serves as the officer in charge of the Corps of Engineers' Bagram Area Office.
Despite the dangers and stoppages, the tunnel is essential to commerce in Afghanistan, said Quirici, who is on his third deployment to Afghanistan. It's the lone tunnel through the steep Hindu Kush. Alternate routes are even more rugged, higher and more prone to attacks by insurgents.
The repairs are funded through the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which allows military commanders in Afghanistan to fund humanitarian and reconstruction projects that benefit the local population. The bulk of the work will begin in the spring, after the snowy winter.
Quirici, a geotechnical expert, coordinated the engineering team's redesign and personally handled the road and drainage issues. One of the most difficult aspects of the job was that U.S. engineers did not have access to the original plans drawn by Soviet engineers decades ago, he said. The original foundation has been buried under decades of resurfacing material.
Furthermore, inspecting the tunnel was difficult because of heavy traffic and because of security considerations for U.S. personnel in the area. Quirici, a 2003 University of New Mexico civil engineering graduate, researched Soviet and Afghan construction techniques, and based his recommendations on those assessments.
The environmental conditions clearly cause the most damage to the tunnel, he said. "When you have water that is moving through the sub-grade and around the tunnel, it freezes and it expands and contracts. Then you have heavy weight moving over it. That's what degrades the pavement," he said.
Quirici specified a 16-inch deep layer of asphalt pavement and a sub-pavement drainage system, which should address those issues. Corps of Engineers personnel expect that the repairs will be performed in 12-hour shifts while the tunnel is closed to traffic at night. The tunnel will be reopened for traffic during the day.
"Whatever you're putting down, it has to be ready to be driven on almost right away every day," Quirici said. "There are limits to how much you can do because of the traffic. It can't be closed down for months at a time to allow a guy to go in there and do it."
Other engineers devised a new system of generators to power the fans and to light a network of bright light-emitting diode lamps.
The current ventilation system is comprised of a series of overhead fans that are intended to blow exhaust fumes from one opening of the tunnel through its entire length and out through large ventilation shafts. But the fans are inoperable and carbon monoxide hangs in the air. Similarly, the current lights generate only a dim orange glow.
Part of the project will include a job-training program to teach Afghan workers how to maintain the tunnel, galleries and roads after the repairs are made.
The repair job has inherent difficulties, Pantano said. "It's up in the mountains, so it's essentially Alpine construction. We've already got snow on the ground up there. There are freezing temperatures. It ices over at night already. There are high winds and all the things you would expect in that environment. So it's a difficult environment to operate and construct in. It's just a very unique place," he said.
At 11,150 feet above sea level, the Salang Tunnel is one of the highest tunnels in the world. It's nearly 2,000 feet higher than Taos Ski Valley, which is 9,200 feet above sea level.
Quirici has worked as a civil engineer for the Corps of Engineers' Albuquerque District since 2003. His first nine-month tour in Afghanistan was in 2007 and 2008. He severed a 13-month tour in 2009 and 2010, and currently is 10 months into a 13-month tour he began in December 2011. He's single and lives in Albuquerque. He graduated from Moriarty High School in Moriarty, N.M.