The Mont Blanc Disaster

- 41 deaths, 52 hours burning

Of the 41 people who died after fire swept through the Mont Blanc tunnel on 24 March, all but 7 had stayed in their cars. They were poisoned by fumes from the fire. To understand what happened you must know that there are independant control rooms, ventilation and safety systems on both sides as half of the tunnel is french and the other half italian territory. Only every second refuge area (unpair numbers) has a sheltered gastight room with fresh air supply giving protection for 2 hours. At it's opening in 1965 the Mont Blanc tunnel was designed to carry 450.000 vehicles a year--yet in 1997 it was used by 1.1 million vehicles.

Much in the following analyse does come from the official investigation report made by a special task force of the french gouvernement. I invite anyone to read it but Iself couldn't find answers to all my questions in it as it's quite unstructured.

The ATMB (Association du Tunnel du Mont Blanc) is the french operating society, the italian is called SITMB

Wednesday morning, March 24, 1999

It was a day "as usual" with average trafic intensity. Rain clouds had cleared and a warm souther wind (Föhn) blew from the italian side.

From 9.00 to 10.00 165 vehicles drove from France to Italy. Just before the incident 4 vehicles a minute entered the tunnel giving an average spacing of 300 meters between them at 80 Km/h. A medium wind blows inside the tunnel from south to north.

Wednesday morning, March 24, 1999, 10.46 AM

The belgian Gilbert Degraves, 57, a truck driver for 25 years drives his Volvo FH12 tractor trailer and a refrigerated trailer loaden with 9 tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour for Italy past the toll at the french side and engages in the tunnel. Nothing anormal was visible. Ignition must have started about now..

 

Investigations showed the lorry had about 550 liters of diesel in its tank at the moment the fire broke out.

Average speed of trucks in that direction is 56 Km/h. This is consistent with the fact that the truck covered 6700 meters in 7 minutes.

Between the moment the belgian truck enters the tunnel and it's closure 9 minutes later a motorcycle, 10 passenger vehicles and 18 trucks entered the tunnel. Four trucks managed to pass the burning truck after it had stopped. 26 vehicles were trapped.

10.52 AM, presumed 6 Minutes after ignition

While the lorry already runs under 2000 meters of solid stone the first signs of smoke were noticed by oncoming trucks between Km 2 or 3. White smoke came out of the cab, passing under the trailer and swirling toward the ceiling.

The obscuration detector in rest area #18 signalises a strong air obscuration quickly ataining high levels so it setts off an visual and audio alarm at the french control station. This alarm also automatically switches monitors to that section. The operator acknowledged the alarm and observed the cameras in #18, 16, 17 and 19. He then saw the smoke on the almost stopped truck.

The obscuration meter at area #14 gave an identical alarm in the same minute. The fire detection system which measures heat and gives alarm over 50°C has sensors located every 8 meters. They did not give an alarm while the vehicle was driving (which isn't unusual) but set off MUCH later. In fact the french alarm set off at 11.13 from area #19, at a moment when temperatures had certainly already past 1000 °C.

The italian detection system works differently. It uses sealed tubes containing a special gas which run for 70-80 meters each. This system is prone to giving false alarms and because the tubes at #21 (where the truck stopped) did so they were switched off the night before. The italian system did not signal any fire AT ALL.

Video records of the cameras exist only on the italian side as the french recorder had an unusuable cassette inserted. Automatic temperature measurements were only taken at the french side but used an 4-day-cycle recording tape. Nobody thought of replacing the tape so the data got erased! Air speed measurements weren't taken on the french side as the equipment was defective since 1996/97!

10.53, 7 Minutes a.i.

FIRE!

The belgian driver is alerted as upcoming cars flash their headlights at him. He looked into his rearview mirror and saw white smoke coming out on the right side of his truck. He slowed down and stopped. He allowed a truck passing in the opposite direction to go by and then got out. White smoke came out of the cab and between cab and trailer. He tried to reach the fire extinguisher located under the left seat. At that moment for the first time flames burst out on both sides of the cab. He stepped back and could do nothing more. "It exploded," Degraves told RTL radio. "It was a ball of fire for about 30 seconds." He reports later: "Everything was ablaze in half a minute. I ran for my life. Behind me all hell broke loose. In a few minutes the tunnel was like an oven."

At the same time automatic video cameras detect cars turning in rest area 22 whose drivers surely saw the blaze. Also people on foot were visible at that area.

I think this is the starting point near #21 as the blackened walls indicate. Farest away is what remains of the belgian truck. Look at the ceiling where naked stone is visible through large holes.

Smoke was noticed on the monitor screens at 10.53 as the truck was just stopping

From the moment the flames broke out smoke changed from white to black. The fire quickly entered the cab. The trailer only caught fire later. However one testimony, a driver passing the burning truck in the opposite direction, noticed the beginning of a fire on top of the trailer.

The trailer was constructed of isothermal foam which was easily flammable. The cargo, the margarine, as it melted, was transformed into an very combustible liquid. It run out of the trailer and spread on the roadway while setting of considerable power.

At this moment an airstream of 1-1,5 m/s blew from the italian to the french side as calculations later showed. The italian operator seing people fleeing on foot judged it was preferable to introduce oxygen to get those people a chance instead of switching the ventilation to maximum extraction. Although this is understandable the added oxygen helped the flames spread much more rapidly and created a strong blow of toxic smoke towards the french side. The french extraction capacity wasn't enough to get rid of this air so a lot of them blew right through the tunnel.

However on the italian side no people were injured so it's hard to tell if his decision was absolutely wrong.

The Mont Blanc Tunnel, left to France, right to Italy. Copyright Brandschutz 8-99

 

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 dying.

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 smoke.

 

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 side.

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 shelter.

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 were installed.

 

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 being detected.

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 lighting system.

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

11.15

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 rapidly north.

There had not been any joint fire drills for 10 years, the (official) report observed, partly because of "local personal conflicts".

 

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 operators.

 

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 toxique.

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 out.

6 french firefighters trapped in space #12

5 men near #5, 2 of them trapped in the sheltered room without oxygen masks.

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 intense heat.

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 operations.

Photo AP

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

Epilogue

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.