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Steven Morris, Tuesday 17th July 2012 16:03
A man and woman are feared to have died in a mud-filled car found more than a week after it was buried under a landslide caused by torrential rain.
The car was discovered on Monday evening under hundreds of tonnes of mud, earth, bricks and vegetation at the entrance to the Beaminster tunnel in Dorset, which has been closed since a landslide on 7 July.
Avon and Somerset police had been searching for a man and woman who had been missing since the time of the landslide. However, nobody had any idea their car had been caught in the mud.
Dorset police, firefighters and engineers only began searching the landslip after detectives managed to work out from phone and credit card records that the couple had been in the Beaminster area.
Speaking at the tunnel entrance, the Dorset police assistant chief constable, James Vaughan, said on Tuesday one body had been found in the car. A second was also thought to be in the vehicle concealed in the mud. The car has been taken away and will be cut open so the bodies can be reached.
Vaughan said the car had been crushed in the landslide.
Vaughan said it had been a "very tragic accident". He said that soon after the landslide the area had been searched but the car had not been seen. There were no reports of people being missing.
Vaughan said the tunnel had been ruled unsafe and sealed off. In due course engineers were going to attempt to reopen it.
He said the weekend of the landslide had been extremely busy. There had been 150 flood warnings, 180 homes evacuated and emergency services had been dealing with 400 incidents.
Avon and Somerset police had been in charge of the search for the man, who was in his 70s, and the woman, who was in her 60s.
A police spokesman said on Tuesday: "Police searching for two people missing from Somerset have recovered a vehicle in Dorset. Enquiries into the missing man and woman suggested they were in the Beaminster area on 7 July and Dorset police were requested to check the area of Beaminster tunnel. Dorset police have found a car under a large volume of earth and mud. Families have been informed and are being supported by family liaison officers."
Police would not confirm the identity of the missing couple, but it is believed that they are from Somerset.
In a joint statement, Dorset police and Dorset Fire and Rescue Service said: "At approximately 6.30pm yesterday Dorset Fire and Rescue Service were contacted by Avon and Somerset police regarding the partial collapse of Beaminster tunnel.
"Crews were subsequently sent to investigate the area, and following a period of excavation discovered a vehicle under a large volume of earth and mud.
"At approximately 7.20pm yesterday Dorset police were advised that Dorset Fire and Rescue Service personnel had discovered a car under a large volume of earth outside the entrance of Beaminster tunnel.
"The road has been closed and a cordon has been put in place while emergency service staff attempt to excavate the vehicle."
The Beaminster tunnel, otherwise known as the Horn Hill tunnel, was opened in 1832. It was closed for five weeks in 2009 while it underwent a major revamp, which included strengthening of the tunnel walls and new lighting.
On 7 July part of the tunnel's facade collapsed and tonnes of mud and vegetation fell on to the A3066 north of Beaminster.
Tim Burden, who visited the tunnel the day after the landslip, said: "It looked to me as if a about 200 tonnes of spoil and earth came down off the embankment. The mud must have been about 10-15ft high (3-4.5 metres) and it was blocking the north entrance to the grade II-listed tunnel.
"There was no sign of a car and it is quite harrowing to think that I was there the next day when two people lay trapped under it all. There is no question that I thought anything was wrong.
"There were other people there who were taking pictures, I imagine they must be thinking how awful it is too. Perhaps if there was a more rapid response from the emergency services or local council they could have been found sooner. But it may well be that health and safety rules meant the landslide may have been deemed too dangerous or unsafe for workmen and their apparatus."
Local resident Douglas Beazer, a former Beaminster councillor, said: "The community is devastated. All week everyone has been saying how lucky it was that no one was in the tunnel when it happened.
It's very sad to think that someone could have buried in there for 10 days and we didn't know it. If there was anything untoward we would have alerted the authorities, but there was nothing to suggest there was anything amiss."