Mont Blanc tunnel fire

Coordinates: 45°53′58″N 6°51′51″E / 45.8995°N 6.8642°E / 45.8995; 6.8642

The Mont Blanc tunnel fire occurred on 24 March 1999. It was caused by a transport truck which caught fire while driving through the Mont Blanc Tunnel between Italy and France. Other vehicles travelling through the tunnel became trapped and fire crews were unable to reach the transport truck. Thirty-nine people were killed. In the aftermath, major changes were made to the tunnel to improve its safety.

Mont Blanc Tunnel fire
Mont Blanc Tunnel Commemorative Plaque.JPG
A memorial plaque on the French side of the tunnel; pictured in 2010, remembering those who were killed in the fire.
DateMarch 24, 1999; 23 years ago (1999-03-24)
VenueMont Blanc Tunnel
LocationChamonix, Haute-Savoie, France
Coordinates45°53′58″N 6°51′51″E / 45.8995°N 6.8642°E / 45.8995; 6.8642
TypeFire
Deaths39
Non-fatal injuries14

FireEdit

On the morning of 24 March 1999, 39 people died when a Belgian transport truck carrying flour and margarine, which had entered the French-side portal, caught fire in the tunnel.[1][2]

The truck came through the tollbooth at 10:46 CET. The initial journey through the tunnel was routine.

According to the documentary television series Seconds from Disaster, the fire and smoke appeared at around 10:49.

Shortly after, the driver realized something was wrong as cars coming in the opposite direction flashed their headlights at him; a glance in his mirrors showed white smoke coming out from under his cabin. This was not yet considered a fire emergency. In fact, there had been 16 other truck fires in the tunnel over the previous 35 years, always extinguished on the spot by the drivers.

At 10:53, the driver of the vehicle, Gilbert Degrave, stopped 6 km into the 11.6 km tunnel, in attempt to fight the fire but he was suddenly forced back when the truck exploded in flames.[2] With Degrave unable to fight the fire, he was forced to flee and abandon the truck. He ran to the Italian entrance of the tunnel.

At 10:54, one of the drivers called from refuge 22 to raise the alarm.

At 10:55, the tunnel employees triggered the fire alarm and stopped any further traffic from entering. At this point, there were at least 10 cars and 18 trucks in the tunnel that had entered from the French side. A few vehicles from the Italian side passed the Volvo truck without stopping. Some of the cars from the French side managed to turn around in the narrow two-lane tunnel to retreat back to France, but navigating the road in the dense smoke that had rapidly filled the tunnel quickly made this impossible.

Between 10:53 and 10:57, the smoke had already covered half a kilometer of the French side. The larger trucks did not have the space to turn around, and reversing out was not an option.

Most drivers rolled up their windows and waited for rescue. The ventilation system in the tunnel drove toxic smoke back down the tunnel faster than anyone could run to safety. These fumes quickly filled the tunnel and caused vehicle engines to stall due to lack of oxygen. This included fire engines which, once affected, had to be abandoned by the firefighters. Many drivers near the blaze who attempted to leave their cars and seek refuge points were quickly overcome due to toxic components of the smoke, mainly cyanide.

Within minutes, two fire trucks from Chamonix responded to the unfolding disaster. The fire had melted the wiring and plunged the tunnel into darkness; in the smoke and with abandoned and wrecked vehicles blocking their path, the fire engines were unable to proceed. Italian firefighters had come 300 meters from the truck. Without other possibilities, fire crews abandoned their vehicles and took refuge in two of the emergency fire cubicles (fire-door sealed small rooms set into the walls every 600 metres).

As they huddled behind the fire doors, they could hear burning fuel roll down the road surface, causing tires and fuel tanks to explode, sending deadly shrapnel in the air. This is probably the point where fire began to spread to other vehicles from the truck, at 11:00.

By 11:11, more Italian firefighters had come to tackle the fire. They also abandoned their vehicles, and searched for trapped groups of firefighters who had taken refuge in the fire cubicles. When it was realized that the cubicles were offering little protection from the smoke, they began searching for the doors that led to the ventilation duct.

All of the firefighters were rescued five hours later by a third fire crew that responded and reached them via a ventilation duct; of the 15 firefighters who had been trapped, 14 were in serious condition and one (their commanding officer) died in the hospital.

Some victims were also able to escape to the fire cubicles. The original fire doors on the cubicles were rated to survive for two hours. Some had been upgraded in the 34 years since the tunnel was built to survive for four hours.

By 11:30, 37 minutes after start of the fire, smoke had reached the French entrance of the tunnel, 6 kilometers from the truck.

In total, the fire burned for 53 hours and reached temperatures of 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), mainly because of the margarine load in the trailer. The trailer was equivalent to a 23,000-litre (5,100 imp gal; 6,100 US gal) oil tanker. The fire spread to other cargo vehicles nearby that also carried combustible loads. The fire trapped around 40 vehicles in dense and poisonous smoke (containing carbon monoxide and cyanide). Due to weather conditions at the time, airflow through the tunnel was from the Italian side to the French side.[3] Authorities compounded the chimney effect by pumping in further fresh air from the Italian side, feeding the fire and forcing poisonous black smoke through the length of the tunnel. Only vehicles past the fire on the French side of the tunnel were trapped, while cars on the Italian side of the fire were mostly unaffected.

There were 29 deaths trapped inside of vehicles, and 9 more died trying to escape on foot. All the deceased were on the French side, and were ultimately reduced to bones and ash. Of the initial 50 people trapped by the fire, 12 survived, all of them from the Italian side.[2] While all people from the Italian side survived, in contrast, all people from the French side died.

It was more than five days before the tunnel cooled sufficiently to start repairs.

AftermathEdit

 
Thermographic inspection station on the Italian side

The tunnel underwent major changes in the three years it remained closed after the fire.[4] Renovations include computerized detection equipment, extra security bays, a parallel escape shaft and a fire station in the middle of the tunnel complete with double-cabbed fire trucks. The safety shafts also have clean air flowing through them via vents. Any people in the security bays now have video contact with the control centre, so they can communicate with the people trapped inside and inform them about what is happening in the tunnel more clearly.

A remote site for cargo safety inspection was created on each side: Aosta in Italy and Passy-Le Fayet in France. Here all trucks are inspected well before the tunnel entrance. These remote sites are also used as staging areas, to smooth the peaks of commercial traffic.

The experience gained from the investigation into the fire was one of the principal factors that led to the creation of the French Land Transport Accident Investigation Bureau.[5]

TV documentaries were also made concerning the disaster, all distributed worldwide and focusing on either safety aspects or the circumstances that turned what should have been a serious, but controllable incident into a disaster. The first, Seconds from Disaster – Tunnel Inferno (aired 2004), was a reconstruction of the events leading up to and during the disaster and the conclusions of the investigation that followed. The second, Into the Flames – Fire Underground (aired 2006), revisited the circumstances and showed how new technology in the form of a new type of fire extinguisher could have reduced the scale of the disaster and enabled the fire service to reach and remain in the vicinity to fight the fire.

Manslaughter trialEdit

In Grenoble, France, 16 people and companies were tried on 31 January 2005 for manslaughter. Defendants in the trial included:

  • Gilbert Degrave, the Belgian driver of the truck that caught fire in the tunnel
  • Volvo, the truck's manufacturer
  • The French and Italian managers of the tunnel
  • ATMB and SITMB
  • Safety regulators
  • The Mayor of Chamonix
  • A senior official of the French Ministry of Public Works

The exact cause of the fire is disputed. One account reported it to be a cigarette stub carelessly thrown at the truck, which supposedly entered the engine induction snorkel above the cabin, setting the paper air filter on fire. Others blamed a mechanical or electrical fault, or poor maintenance of the truck's engine. An investigation found no evidence of a design fault with the truck.[6] The closest smoke detector was out of order, and French emergency services did not use the same radio frequency as those inside the tunnel.

The Italian company responsible for operating the tunnel, SITMB, paid €13.5 million ($17.5 million US) to a fund for the families of the victims. Édouard Balladur, former president of the French company operating the tunnel (from 1968 to 1980), and later Prime Minister of France, underwent a witness examination. He was asked about the security measures that he ordered, or did not order, to be carried out.

Balladur claimed that the catastrophe could be attributed to the fact the tunnel had been divided into two sections operated by two companies (one in France, the other in Italy), which failed to coordinate the situation. On 27 July 2005, thirteen defendants were found guilty, and received sentences ranging from fines to suspended prison sentences to six months in jail:

  • Gérard Roncoli, the head of security at the tunnel, was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail plus an additional two-year suspended sentence, the heaviest sentence levied against any of the defendants. The sentence was upheld on appeal.[7]
  • Remy Chardon, former president of the French company operating the tunnel, was convicted and received a two-year suspended jail term; he was also fined approximately US$18,000.
  • Gilbert Degrave, the driver of the truck, received a four-month suspended sentence.
  • Seven other people, including the tunnel's Italian security chief, received suspended terms and fines.
  • Three companies were fined up to US$180,000 each.
  • The charges against Volvo were dropped.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 29, 2012. Retrieved September 27, 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ a b c Barry, Keith (15 July 2010). "July 16, 1965: Mont Blanc Tunnel Opens". Wired. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
  3. ^ "Case Studies: Historical Fires: Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire, Italy/France". University of Manchester. Archived from the original on October 29, 2018.
  4. ^ Bailey, Colin. "Infrastructural Fires: Mont Blanc Tunnel, Italy". www.mace.manchester.ac.uk. Archived from the original on October 29, 2018. Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  5. ^ "Land transport accident investigation bureau (BEA-TT)". French Land Transport Accident Investigation Bureau. Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  6. ^ "Guilty Verdicts in Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire Trial".
  7. ^ "Procès du Mont-Blanc : Gérard Roncoli condamné en appel à 6 mois de prison ferme". Le Monde.fr. Lemonde.fr. 14 June 2007. Retrieved 2016-04-23.