Historic tunnel handshake joins Britain to France

December 02, 1990|By New York Times News Service

FOLKESTONE, England -- At 11:21 a.m. yesterday, Robert Graham Fagg of Dover climbed through a 3-foot by 4-foot hole in a wall of chalk marl 130 feet below the seabed of the English Channel, shook the hand of Phillippe Cozette of Calais and shouted: "Vive la France."

The English and French construction workers then hugged each other as a crowd of 100 onlookers cheered, celebrating the breakthrough of the channel tunnel -- known as the Chunnel -- which joined Britain to the European continent.

Suddenly, the centuries-old dream shared by Napoleon -- and the fear still shared by many in Britain -- was no longer a fantasy.

People will not be able to drive from England to France. But, in 2 1/2 years, when the tunnel project is finished, trains will zip beneath the channel, carrying people, cars, trucks and freight.

The breakthrough occurred 13.9 miles from the English coast and 9.7 miles from the French coast. It happened three years to the day after digging began on the English side.

Most of the passage was cut by two giant laser-guided boring machines, which set out from the opposite shores. But it was workers using hand-held pneumatic drills who chipped through the remaining 25 feet.

At 11:11 a.m., the two who won the honor in a lottery -- Mr. Fagg, 42, and Mr. Cozette, 37 -- broke through. One minute later, they had created an opening large enough to shake hands and to take turns leaning through the hole.

"Bravo," said Mr. Fagg, who had worked on a channel-tunnel project in the mid-1970s that was abandoned.

"Welcome to France," said Mr. Cozette.

They waved French and British flags.

French and English workers poured through the hole and boarded shuttle trains to complete the first land journeys across the English Channel since Britain and the continent were joined in the Ice Age.

Before that, however, another first was in order: A champagne party for 100 was held beneath the channel. The proper attire seemed to be khaki coveralls for the French, bright orange ones for the British and hard hats for all.

The guests included executives and workers from Transmanche-Link, the consortium of 10 British and French construction companies building the tunnel, and from Eurotunnel, which is financing the $14.8 billion project and will operate the tunnel.

Digging began in late 1987. Executives of Eurotunnel are optimistic that the remaining 18.2 miles will be completed by mid-1991 and that train service will go into operation in June 1993.

When it does, people will be able to travel between London and Paris in about 3 hours and between London and Brussels, Belgium, in 3 hours and 10 minutes.

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