10.54, 8 Minutes after ignition
A phone call from area 22 is received at the italian control room.Smoke
is detected on the video monitors between areas 16 and 21. The siren
was set off at 10.54 on the french side. At 10.55 all trafic lights
in the direction France-Italy turned red. A truck that was entering
was quickly forced to back up and make place for emergencies. Of
the 5 vehicles already past the toll gate 3 stopped when the siren
went off, the other 2 continued inside the tunnel. How silly
CAN you be? The trafic lights inside the tunnel, beside being
hard to see, weren't probably working correctly
On the italian side similar measures were taken at 10.55 and 10.56.
Inside the tunnel the inferno started
On the italian side 8 trucks stopped before area #22. Their
drivers leave their cabs and see a thick wall of black smoke under
the ceiling and advancing towards them. The tunnel is so narrow
they couldn't turn around so they fled on foot. They all managed
to escape. Remember the airflow from Italy to France blowing the
smoke away from them. In this first phase the smoke spread into
direction Italy but didn't reach area #22 until an hour later. The
trucks burned out even later.
On the french side and behind the burning lorry 2 truck
drivers up front left their vehicles and run back towards the french
entrance. They died probably of toxic smoke after 200 and 240 meters.
This shows how fast and poisonous the smoke was. Car drivers also
tried to escape but they managed to make only 100 - 500 meters before
Most other drivers stayed in or near their vehicles as they probably
couldn't see the fire for some time and before it spread to other
vehicles. 27 were found dead in the wrecks, 9 were found outside.
10 cars tried to turn around but none managed which points to the
lack of oxygen and visibility bringing the engines to a halt.
The smoke spread with 2-2,5 m/s near the fire and increased speed
up to 6-6,5 m/s near the exit. This is faster than most people even
in good health can run in good conditions. No more than 10 minutes
were needed to fill the tunnel up to area 18 with combustion gasses.
No automatic counting system is present so nobody
could tell how many cars and trucks were inside.
Effects of the smoke:
The gases cut visibility almost immediately
to zero. Only seconds later the CO content of the air rose over
150 ppm and quickly climbed. This means strong health hazard.
Heat roses over 50 °C at area #15 which is 1,8 Kilometers from
the burning lorry after only 15 minutes from the first sign of
This is the first lorry (numbered
-1) which stopped on the italian side near area #22 (notice the
recessed shelter behind the truck) when the driver noticed the
fire. It was 290 meters away from the point the fire ignited.
10.56, 10 minutes a.i.
A italian employe Pierlucio "Spadino" Tinazzi is just on the french
side. He takes a motorcycle and drives into the tunnel where he
meets several people fleeing on foot. He advises them to keep to
the side with the fresh air outlets and drives on wearing a breathing
device. The entire tunnel crossection is now filled with a mix of
smoke and air as an wind of about 10 Km/h blows toward France. He
can approach the lorry up to 7 meters and sees a completely burning
cab and objects (lamps and cables) already tumbling down from the
ceiling. At tis moment the main lights were already out of order
as were the emergency lights.
He returns to the french side to report and immediately reengages
into the tunnel to help more people out of the trap . A brave deed
for which he paid with his life. This was the last moment he was
seen alive. He saved reportedly at least 10 people from death. Radio
connection with him could be held for about one hour when he had
to abondon his motorcycle.
He managed to get up near area #20 where he sought shelter. Sadly
#20 had no bunker room so he died there together with a driver from
a passenger car.
That's all what remains of the motorcycle.
The heat was so intense the chassis melted into the tarmac. It was
found near #20, around 200 meters from the point the fire started.
The body of his driver Pierlucio "Spadino" Tinazzi was found a few
meters away in niche #20.
10.57, 11 minutes a.i.
The ATMB fire engine of the safety force drives into the tunnel
from the french side. Aboard 4 firemen.
An AMTB man coming from Italy drives past area #22 and crosses
a thick wall of smoke filling the whole crossection for 100-200
meters. Then the air became cleaner although heat climbed quickly.
A heavy pitch black cloud hang over him as he managed to come up
to 10 meters to the burning truck. It must have been almost at the
same moment as his italian counterpart did the same from the opposite
Firefighting forces were on the french
side are 10 people max with a minimum of 4 at night. Equipment
consists of an FPTL (2000 liter pumper engine) with extinguishers
and breathing devices, an PS (600 liters first rescue vehicle)
with extinguishers and breathing devices and an ambulance.
On the italian side there were a
team of 8 motorcycle patrols and a multi-use fire vehicle with
3 extinguishers staffed by a driver. The official report is somehow
inconsistent if and when this vehicle was used... The italian
company has a paragraph in it's working contracts that makes every
employe responsible for damage to the tunnel - and this applies
also to firefighters. I've seldom heard such bulls..t.
Both emergency plans, dating from
1994 (french) and 1995 (italian) were hopelessly inadequate. One
can only wonder about the lack of afterthoughts the tunnel operating
societies spend on this project.
10.58, 12 minutes a.i.
The french Central Alarm Center CTA in Annecy is alerted at 10:58:30.
It immediately forwards the alarm to the Main Rescue Center in Chamonix.
They got the message that a lorry was burning inside the tunnel.
CHRISTIAN COMTE, fire brigade chief, Chamonix: "On the day of the
fire we are called for smoke in the tunnel, just one lorry, but
nobody knows exactly what happened."
At the same moment an alarm switch is pulled at area 21, a minute
later a fire extinguisher is taken out of his hold in the same area.
At the same moment the 4 firemen from the french side are still
1000 meters from the burning lorry. They report sudden heavy smoke
decreasing visibility to 0 and cutting the engine. They get the
order to take shelter in safety space #17 at Km 5.1. Those shelters
can take dozens of occupants. However, the bunkers are designed
to resist heat and toxic fumes for only about two hours. In fact
they held even much longer but not near the center of the fire.
Here temperatures reached 1800 °C and lasted for 52 hours. Resistance
to this would have demanded something similar to an atomic bomb
The ventilation system
Above: The Mont Blanc Tunnel's aeration
system lies below the road and uses 2 separate fresh air and a switchable
duct. 1 aeration system on each side with 16 engines of a total
capacity of 7000 KW and 600 cubic meters per second were the state-of-the-art
35 years ago. The operator of the tunnel knew about the deficiencies
of the system as a report made a year before already announced problems
in case of a fire. Differing athmospheric pressures on both sides
make for an medium strong natural air flow which went from south
to north that day.
An refuge area after the fire. The heat was so high it couldn't
resist all the 52 hours.
Why was the smoke so deadly?
Beside the CO content which inself is highly poisonous
other gases were likely to be present (no samples were taken). The
burning PVC produced hydrocloric acid and cyanhydric acid, the foam
insulation of the trailer nitrogen oxides- a deadly combination.
To this the margarine added acrolein. All this was worsened by the
lack of oxygen which leads to more toxic gases being produced.
2 breaths of this combination were enough to bring any
man to his knees.
Above: This must have been refuge area
#22 near the point it all started. The fire extinguisher is taken
out of it's hold and stands near the wall. Look at the back just
over the ventilation grille. All except the immediate surrounding
of the grille is covered in thick black soot, signs of the smoke
contamination. If the room had a connection with the ventilation
ducts under it people'd had a good chance to escape.
11.01, 15 minutes a.i.
The lighting equipment was destroyed and fell out at 11.01. The
same for the sprinkler system on the french side and the exhaust
dampers on the italian side. No redundant or failsafe systems
11.02, 16 minutes a.i.
The Courmayeur firefighters are allerted. At the same moment the
first fire engine leaves it's base at Chamonix.
The italian fire detection system looses all transmission data
from the acquisition cabinet in area #19.
Investigations later discovered that most of the people who
perished under Mont Blanc died within 15 minutes of the fire first
11.04, 18 minutes a.i.
The first fire engine leaves it's base at Courmayeur.
11.10, 24 minutes a.i.
The first firefighters from Chamonix arrive at the tunnel and immediately
drive inside. Meanwhile short circuits cut more and more of the
|Later M. CHARLET, mayor of Chamonix
stated: "I asked the tunnel company to help us to finance a new fire
station situated at the tunnel mound because I thought it was justified
by the proximity of the tunnel. The president of the tunnel replied
that it wasn't their business." The majority shareholder in the
tunnel company, the ATMB, is the French state. Not only is it a nice
little earner - making £4.5 million profit a year - it's also a valuable
source of perks. The first head of the tunnel company was Valery Giscard
d'Estaing's father; later the ex-Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur,
had the job until 1981, while the current incumbent, Remy Chardon,
was chef de cabinet for the current president, Jacques Chirac.
11.11, 25 minutes a.i.
An employe (probably the motorcycle rider) stops the firefighters
and tells them they need breathing protection. The 6 firefighters
carry at that moment only 4 masks but decide to continue for investigation.
At the same moment the italian firefighters arrive at the portal
on their side. The Italian fire service, like the French, was woefully
unprepared. ELIO MARLIER, fire brigade chief, Aosta: "Nobody, especially
not the firemen, would have imagined that something like that could
happen at Mont Blanc. We have always been convinced and have always
underlined, that the refuges are, as we say in Italian, like pizza
ovens." They had never mounted a full-blown exercise inside the
tunnel. Only two joint safety exercises had been held in 25 years
and neither had involved live practice inside the tunnel.
What all firemen lacked in trained they compensated by courage.
Not the wisest way but it saved many lives.
The italian entrance showed little evidence
of the fire
The operator of the french side broadcasted on 2 french radio frequencies
alarm messages. Sadly he hadn't any more listeners at that time...
11.16, 30 minutes a.i.
The italian force arrives at area #22, only 400 meters from the
fire. Here they couldn't drive on hitting a thick wall of heavy
smoke. So they continued on foot with breathing devices. Soon the
heat rose extremely with still visibility at 0. It was impossible
to advance further so they had to retreat.
A French trucker who survived the inferno described the horrific
sound of victims screaming for help as the fire raged through the
tunnel. "I would like to be able to think of something else, but
I can't," said Emmanuel Gaillard, 39, in a newspaper interview.
He was returning from Italy when he entered the tunnel 10 minutes
before the blaze started. "A fellow trucker called me on my CB radio
and told me to stop and turn back as there was a fire." Gaillard
said he managed to seek refuge in one of the tunnel's pressurised
emergency shelters while he listened to the screams of the victims
and their car horns blasting.
11.19, 33 minutes a.i.
Driving carefully in the dark tunnel the Chamonix' firefighters
get suddenly enclosed by thick smoke near the space #12 at Km 3.7
( 2,5 kilometers before the burning truck)
After some tries to turn around the engine dies of lack of oxygen.
They had to abondon the car and take cover in space #12 which had
no sheltered room. The 2 people without masks immediately got heavy
smoke intoxications. They triggered the alarm switch to get attention.
The emergency phones were already out of order for the wiring had
burnt and short circuited.
Communication between both sides is very limited,
no coordinated efforts were made. Not even the ventilation systems
worked identical, the french extracting smoke and the italian pushing
in oxygen. This resulted in an heavy airflow spreading toxic smoke
There had not been any joint fire drills for 10
years, the (official) report observed, partly because of "local
11.24, 38 minutes a.i.
The commander of the Chamonix' firefighters arrives and gets informed
of the situation. All is very caotic, nobody knows if and how many
people are still inside. Survey cameras show nothing as black smoke
if they work at all. No coordination is made with the italian side's
CHRISTIAN COMTE, fire brigade chief, Chamonix reported later:
"Le jour même, on m'a dit qu'il y avait un problème dans le
tunnel du Mont Blanc et que nos premiers secours étaient partis.
Je suis allé les rejoindre.
Sur le moment, on n'avait pas d'informations précises - on ne savait
pas ce qui brlait, ni à quel endroit, s'il y avait du monde à l'intérieur
ou pas. Mes gars étaient partis parce qu'ils pensaient qu'il y avait
du monde et ils voulaient les sauver.
J'ai appris peu de temps après mon arrivée qu'ils étaient coincés
dans le tunnel - et qu'ils n'avaient pas d'air. J'ai envoyé un véhicule
de pompiers avec des bouteilles d'air pour aller les chercher. Mais
il y avait énormément de fumée et le véhicule s'est trouvé bloqué
pratiquement dès son entrée dans le tunnel. La fumée était tellement
dense qu'on ne voyait pas à un mètre.
On n'a jamais atteint les accidentés - mes gars sont restés
coincés dans la fumée. C'était de la folie - on respirait deux bouffées
de cette fumée et on se retrouvait à genoux, tellement elle était
On a attendu encore un peu et mes collègues qui étaient restés
à l'extérieur nous ont envoyé des secours - une ambulance et puis
des bouteilles d'air de rechange pour qu'on puisse rentrer avec
les véhicules qu'on avait. Là, on est sortis. Il devait être quatre
heures et demie, alors qu'on était rentrés à onze heures.
C'était l'enfer - mes garçons ne s'en sont pas remis, psychologiquement
ils sont très atteints. Moi aussi. Mais je pense que dans la m me
situation, mes hommes y retourneraient, parce qu'ils sont pompiers.
Ils sont là pour sauver la vie. "
11.31, 45 minutes after all started
Time to make an overview of who's where inside:
6 italian men trapped in shelter at #17, their engine later burned
6 french firefighters trapped in space #12
5 men near #5, 2 of them trapped in the sheltered room without
1 man missing with his motorcycle
above: In this completely burned out car, number
9 in the drawing below, the investigators found the seat belts still
buckled up. Traces of human bones were found on both front seats.
The first lorry to stop behind the burning
transporter in the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
11.33, 47 minutes a.i.
The french control room can now reach one of the trapped Chamonix'
firefighters in area #12 by phone.
11.36, 50 minutes a.i.
The second engine from Chamonix arrives at the french portal and
gets the mission of saving the french firefighters at space #12.
They engage into the tunnel but are stopped near space #5 by a thick
wall of smoke. 2 Men are left in the sheltered room of #5, 3 men
continue wearing respiration masks.
The 2 AMTB fireengines were removed 3 days after the fire from
the tunnel. One burned out completely, the second was badly damaged.
11.45, 59 minutes a.i.
I assume the engine of their vehicle died of lack of oxygen as
they retreated to rest area #24, Km 7.2, some 600 meters further
to Italy. About 3 hours later they climb into the fresh air duct
under the road and manage to flee out of the tunnel.
Another italian task force enters the switchable air duct and marches
toward the fire. Between #21 and #22 they can't go further for the
1 hour 7 Minutes a.i.
It is decided to try an rescue mission using the fresh air channels
located under the road. The french firefighters manage to get quite
far but due to incoming smoke take cover in shelter #5 where they
find the 2 firemen waiting there. Going further they discovered
in shelter #11 at Km 3.3 the occupants of an ambulance and a doctor
giving much needed aid to the 2 firemen not wearing masks.
On further advancing they found 2 other firemen in a niche between
11 and 12. They were ordered to retreat to #11.
Going still further they found in niche #12 (no shelter room) the
5 firemen lying on the floor and respirating directly over a fresh
air duct opening using their jackets to keep off the smoke. Help
was immediately called for and the 5 men were brought out, two of
them flown into the hospital at Lyon. Sadly one of them, Chief Tosello
of the Chamonix fire brigade who was the driver of the engine died
at 4.40 PM.
They search for an italian employe of the tunnel company who entered
the tunnel from the french side with his motorcycle. Rescued people
reported later that he could still save a bunch of them guiding
them to the italian side. He was later found dead in the space #20
(not a shelter) together with another dead person.
Newspapers reported: Firefighters who emerged Saturday after working
for hours in the tunnel had sweat pouring down their blackened faces.
Many were unable to speak about the horror they had seen. "The firefighters
are in shock, especially those who went in first," fire Commander
Philippe Pathoux told reporters gathered at the entrance on the
French side of the tunnel. "The vehicles are totally destroyed --
just twisted wrecks," said Pathoux, who is heading French rescue
Smoke rose from their protective gear as they emerged from forays
into the tunnel. They declined to speak to reporters.
Speaking to The Associated Press by telephone, Comte said he worked
his way along the wall of the tunnel until he came to a group of
six firefighters -- all lying on the ground with their jackets over
their heads, motionless. "I thought they were all dead," he said.
He helped them all leave, but one died later. Among the victims
was Pierlucio Tinazi, a 33-year-old Italian tunnel employee. He
saved 10 people, Italian officials told a news conference, making
repeated trips on his motorcycle before succumbing to the fire.
"I consider him a real hero," Colombo said. "He did his duty and
we are very grateful to him."
13.35, 2 hours 48 minutes a.i.
The fire commander of the Département Haute-Savoye gives the highest
possible alert (stage red) allowing an giant firefighting machinerie
to be set up .
18.35, 7 hours 48 minutes after ignition started
An french fireengine manages to save the 6 people in the sheltered
room at #17 taking extreme high risks.
At this moment it was clear to everyone that nobody still inside
could be alive.
48 hours after ignition started
Completely extinguishing the fire took 50 hours. Using a spray
mist, they cooled it down to 158 degrees, then to 122 degrees.
The tunnel was massively damaged on 900 meters lenght, the ceramic
tiles fell off on nearly a kilometer. Concrete, burned installations
and lorry loads blocked the way so heavy equipment had to be used
to even access the center. The safety shelters near the place the
accident happened were also severely damaged. From the photos I'd
say no one could have survived inside one of them. In 1991 the operator
of the Mont Blanc tunnel, Autoroute et Tunnel du Mont Blanc, cut
fire-proof shelters into the side of the tunnel every 300 metres.
Unfortunately, two of those who died in this year's fire were poisoned
by fumes after they had sought refuge in the areas without shelter
rooms. Even so those rooms offered no escape connection to the fresh
air duct so refugees couldn't get out
3 days after the fire the heat had cleared enough
to bring out the wrecks
Copenhagen-Apr 27, 1999-(BANNS)- Volvo executives have been questioned
by French police on thinkable reasons for the fire in a Volvo truck
that started the disastrous fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel on March
24, Swedish television reported late Monday. The fire cost the lives
of more than 40 people, and reports in French and Belgian media
have pointed to construction defects in the Volvo truck as a likely
cause of the fire. They claim Volvo trucks have particular problems
with fires in its trucks, but Volvo denies this.