Life Was Cheap In The U.S.S.R.: The 1982 Salang Tunnel Disaster

Local residents walk along with a donkey carrying water pots after heavy snowfall in Khanozai area some 75 kms in northeast of the provincial capital Quetta on January 14, 2020. (Banaras KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Tucked within the rocky wilderness of the Hindu Kush mountains is a nearly two-mile tunnel which, despite its relatively short distance, is critical to connecting the northern and southern regions of Afghanistan. Before the Salang Tunnel was built in 1964, it took more than 72 hours to reach Kabul from Herat, a trek which nowadays only takes about 10. It's now considered the economic backbone of the nation, but things haven't always been cheery with the mountain pass. Time and time again, this all-important lifeline has proved a disastrous deathtrap.

The Salang Tunnel Fire

The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 began testing the Salang Tunnel's safety almost immediately, as on February 23, 1980, a build up of exhaust fumes killed 16 Soviet soldiers who were attempting to move a heavy missile through the poorly ventilated pass. However, nothing showed the tunnel's true claustrophobic terror like the Salang Tunnel fire of 1982, when a large Soviet convoy made the drastic mistake of taking the perilous shortcut. The tunnel, originally built with cars and goods transport in mind, did not do well with congested traffic from large vehicles, and the dust and debris from the unpaved road obscure any driver's vision. It was a recipe for catastrophe that came out of the oven when a fuel truck accidentally hit the truck in front of it and there was nowhere for the resulting fireball to go but sideways.