Join us to reflect on the tragic incident of 24th March 1999, where a routine morning journey through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, became the scene of a disastrous fire claiming the lives of 39 people. This tragedy remains one of the most significant events in the history of tunnel safety and serves as a reminder of the dangers faced by travellers and the paramount importance of stringent fire safety protocols in such environments.

24 March 2024 by FIA Team, FIA Team

On Wednesday 24th March 1999, inside the Mont Blanc highway tunnel. A high traffic route under the Mont Blanc Mountain in the alps, linking France with Italy. Unbeknown to those in the tunnel, this date was to become the scene of a devastating and disastrous fire, still regarded today as one of the most significant events in the history of tunnel safety.

A Belgian registered HGV, carrying 9 tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour, entered the tunnel at approximately 10:46 C.E.T.  The driver, Gilbert Degrave, stopped his vehicle approximately 6.5km inside the 11.6km tunnel on the French side, as smoke was reportedly coming from the cab. In the moments immediately after stopping, flames could be seen, and quickly spread to the trailer which combusted due to the volatile nature of the cargo. A separate alarm was raised when a fire extinguisher was removed from its housing when the driver attempted to combat and extinguish the fire but was forced to flee.

By 10:52 C.E.T, the smoke had activated an Opacimeter (a device used to determine the level of light through a meter). Whilst this alarm activation prevented entry of further traffic to the tunnel, unfortunately at least 34 other vehicles were already trapped inside (26 vehicles including a motorcycle on the French side and 8 HGVs on the Italian side). Five minutes after the alarm activation, the ATMB (Autorout et Tunnel du Mont Blanc – one of the joint operators of the tunnel) sent a light fire engine with four firefighters on board, into the tunnel. Six minutes later, French public fire brigades were informed of the incident, with their arrival some 18 minutes later. On arrival, they only managed to travel approximately 3700m into the tunnel before being overcome by the dense and toxic smoke, with other vehicles already abandoned further impeding their progress. This resulted in them taking shelter in one of the safe refuge areas located throughout the length of the tunnel.

At approximately 11:11 C.E.T, the first fire engine from the Italian side entered the tunnel, but despite coming within 300 metres of the fire, they were forced to retreat due to the intense flames and exploding vehicle debris to await rescue.

Efforts to combat the fire, and rescue those seeking refuge in the emergency shelters were hampered by a lack of communication, with limited information being passed from the firefighters already in the tunnel to commanders. This led to a failure of those involved to grasp the seriousness of the situation and a lack of clear strategic and tactical priorities, i.e., whether the priority was to attack the fire, or search and rescue those persons (including firefighters) who were trapped.

The ventilation systems within the tunnel also contributed to the acceleration of the fire due to unbalanced ventilation levels i.e., a higher level of fresh air and an absence of exhaust. Had the system been designed and operated correctly, the atmosphere may not have been exposed to such fatal levels of toxicity.

The raging fire, with temperatures in excess of 1000°C, was finally extinguished 53 hours after the initial ignition. It took a number of days for the tunnel to sufficiently cool, in order for repairs on this critical transport route to begin.

In the aftermath, the repairs and extensive safety renovations to the Mont Blanc Tunnel caused it to be closed for three years. Improvements included an increase to the levels of automatic fire detection, structural changes to include fire resistant cladding to walls, additional smoke extraction, increased numbers of emergency refuge shelters, not exceeding 300m intervals, and the construction of additional command and control centres to include further CCTV and video monitoring systems.

Remote cargo safety inspection areas were also established on each side of the tunnel, allowing trucks to pass through thorough inspections before entering the tunnel, helping to manage commercial traffic flow and enhance safety.

The tragedy led to the creation of the French Land Transport Accident Investigation Bureau, emphasising the importance of thorough accident investigations in preventing future disasters.

There have been many documentaries produced surrounding the events and aftermath of the disaster, such as 'Seconds from Disaster – Tunnel Inferno' and 'Into the Flames – Fire Underground', focusing on the disaster's safety aspects and the sequence of events that escalated what should have been a controllable incident into a catastrophe.

Pierlucio Tinazzi, an Italian security guard who perished while attempting rescue, was honoured afterwards with Italy's Medaglia d ‘Oro al Valore Civile for his bravery.

Following the fatal tragedy, the ensuing legal proceedings saw 16 individuals and companies judged for manslaughter in Grenoble, France, with convictions ranging from fines to suspended prison sentences.

The trial highlighted issues such as the lack of cross-border operational coordination, the lack of equipment and apparatus for the fire and rescue personnel, and the need for uniform safety standards.

This tragic event underscores the importance of continuous improvement in fire safety standards and protocols. The Fire Industry Association (FIA) is committed to learning from such incidents to enhance fire safety measures across Europe. We advocate for rigorous fire safety training, regular safety audits, and the integration of advanced fire detection and suppression technologies.

As an industry, we should remember the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of fire and the paramount importance of preparedness, safety, and continuous learning. The FIA remains dedicated to promoting and perfecting fire protection methods to ensure such tragedies are never repeated.

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