Under the Mont Blanc mountain range is a 11,6 km (around 7.2 miles) long road tunnel, connecting France with Italy. It is one of the major trans-alpine routes, and up to a third of Italy's freight passed through it, with 766,000 heavy goods vehicles using the tunnel in 1998.
On March 24, 1999 at around 10.40am, a Belgian lorry carrying flour and margarine caught fire close to the midpoint of the tunnel. It is not known how long it took for the the fire to be detected, but entrance to the tunnel was closed as soon as it was. For 9 minutes the traffic already in the tunnel was not warned. For 9 minutes people drove on, oblivious of the danger ahead.
The fire spread quickly from the lorry to other vehicles, generating a thick toxic smoke against which the ventilation systems were powerless and temperatures of up to 1000C. For three whole days the fire burned, despite the best efforts of French and Italian firemen. The fumes made fire and rescue efforts very difficult, and led to the death of a French fire-fighter and many of the victims as well as rendering the tunnel's surveillance cameras useless.
When finally the fire ceased firemen discovered the charred remains of 33 vehicles. Bodies burn to ashes, number plates molten, identification of the victims was almost impossible. The heat melted asphalt and cracked concrete in the tunnel, causing parts of it to collapse. All in all it is thought that 40 people perished in the fire and that 34 were injured. Almost all of the victims were found at the wheel of their car, showing that they were overcome by the fumes and heat before they were able to escape.
Antiquated safety equipment
How the fire started is still not well known, it is thought that the Volvo lorry onboard which the fire started may have been responsible. There has been evidence that air filters systems on board that particular type of truck was defective, but this has been denied by Volvo.
The thick smoke stopped other vehicles seeing the fire before it was too late, a problem exacerbated by many vehicles travelling too fast and too close together. The fire was worsened by the mistake of an operator who claimed that experience had taught him that the best way to clear smoke from the Italian end of the tunnel was to pump fresh air through one shaft of the ventilation system. Instead of helping with the situation, this only fanned the flames, fuelling the blaze.
The recomended approach was instead to extract smoke, however it is uncertain if this would have reduced the number of deaths, since the extractors in place were not powerful enough.
There is no doubt however that the death toll could have been dramatically reduced by better safety procedures and equipment.
The ventilation and safety system was virtually unchanged since the tunnel was opened in 1962. There was no parallel evacuation route. None of this was improved by the lack of coordination between the French and the Italian command centres.
The company responsible for the tunnel claims that they had invested heavily in safety procedures and equipment, but fire-fighters revealed a report submitted to the French authorities a year earlier, warning that a major rescue operation would be extremely difficult and that they were worried at the lack of rescue exercises. The last training exercise with burning tires was in the mid seventies: people were not trained to deal with such an incident. The Autoroutes du Tunnel du Mont Blanc Company (mainly owned by the French state) and the French authorities claim to have never seen this document.
Even today many questions are left unanswered: why were the French video recorders not working? What happened to the tapes from the Italian video surveillance system? Was the truck that started the fire venting smoke when it entered the tunnel? ATMB (the company that ran the tunnel) was left in charge of the site after the fire and had access to the tunnel, how reliable is evidence found there?
Over four years after the disaster the inquiry is not over and the trial of 15 people charged with manslaughter is not expected before 2004.
On March 6, 2002 the tunnel was reopened to cars only, and lorries were progressively readmitted from May 13, 2002 to June 25, 2002, with the exception of those carrying dangerous substances. Extensive safety enhancements were put in place at a cost of over €300 million, including 37 concrete-lined shelters (one every 300 metres) which are pressurised and equipped with fireproof airlocks, video links to the 3 command posts and access to a separate evacuation route below the main tunnel. Ventilation was enhanced with the addition of 116 extractors and 76 fresh air vents. To allow a quick response to a similar disaster, 120 video cameras and air quality systems now monitor the tunnel, with heat sensors at the entrance of the tunnel able to detect overheated trucks before it is too late. Message boards every 600 metres will be used to warn travellers of any potential danger. Three command posts have been set up (one at each end of the tunnel and one in the middle) which are manned by firemen round the clock.
As an additional security measure the number of lorries entering the tunnel will be limited and at any given time lorries will only be allowed to travel in one direction.
Freight transport associations welcomed the reopening of the tunnel, a vital artery between southern and northern Europe, but far from everyone was happy with the decision. Many locals had campaigned extensively for the tunnel to stay closed permanently, saying that the traffic it brought was damaging to the valley of Chamonix and dangerous for those who lived there. They claim that since the tunnel was closed, the quality of the air has improved noticeably. Many believe the area to be a site of exceptional beauty, which should not be marred by the constant passing of thousands of lorries. They point to alternatives such as rail travel as a preferred solution for freight. A high-speed rail link has been planned between France and Italy, and is due to open in 2015, needless to say, residents of that area are equally unhappy claiming it will damage their environment.
On July 27, 2005 a French court found 13 individuals guilty of manslaughter. Among them were the driver whose lorry started the blaze, the head of tunnel security, the mayor of Chamonix, and the former president of the company running the tunnel. All charges against Volvo, the manufacturer of the lorry that started the fire, were dropped as there was no evidence of any fault in the vehicle's design.
The Mont Blanc disaster threw open the debate between rail and road transport. Subsequent fires in the Tauern tunnel in Austria and the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland continued to emphasise the need for a decision. Beyond the decision to build the Lyon-Turin line, from autumn 2002, the equivalent of 50,000 lorries of year will be diverted to rail transit. After an event like this, one can only commend the bravery of men like Pierlucio Tinazzi, an Italian tunnel employee. He made repeated trips into the tunnel on his motorcycle and saved 10 people before eventually succumbing to the flames.