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David Hill was on a tour bus travelling from Milford Sound to Queenstown when he noticed a car two spaces in front had flames ‘‘falling off the engine’’.
‘‘In hindsight, I think it was probably a fuel line dripping. I learned from the driver that the vehicle stalled, probably because it ran out of gas, and he cleverly put the car in park, put the handbrake on and then jumped out.’’
Mr Hill and bus driver Matt Cuthill then got off the bus and used two fire extinguishers to try to put it out, but had no success.
‘‘Meanwhile, it was a bit of a struggle to keep people in their cars because they wanted to see what was happening. The flames were just getting bigger and bigger.’’
Mr Hill said one of the major concerns was other vehicles entering the tunnel from the other direction into plumes of smoke.
‘‘I could see the headlights through the smoke and I had visions of them having their own accidents or being, potentially, asphyxiated.’’
Once they realised they could not do any more, Mr Cuthill backed the bus out of the tunnel.
‘‘It took about 10 minutes to get out ... I would say there was about 20 to 30 other vehicles in the tunnel at the time,’’ Mr Hill said.
Tour passenger Cheryl Marshall, of the United States, said despite the frightening scenes, passengers on the bus remained calm.
‘‘It was fine because we knew people were OK. There was a young couple in the vehicle at the time but they got out quickly.’’
Emergency services were called to the tunnel on Milford Rd about 3.45pm.
A Fire and Emergency New Zealand spokesman said the fire was believed to be a result of an electrical issue with the vehicle.
Three crews from Te Anau and two from Milford Sound attended, along with police and ambulance ‘‘as a courtesy’’.
The NZ Transport Agency carried out a safety assessment and the tunnel reopened about 7.35pm.
■State Highway 6 was blocked for several hours yesterday after a serious two-truck crash near Lumsden.
A police spokeswoman said they were alerted to the scene on the Lumsden-Dipton Highway, close to the Josephville-Glenure Rd intersection, at 9.05am.
A St John spokesman said one person, believed to be male, was taken by helicopter to Dunedin Hospital with moderate injuries, while another person was treated at the scene.