Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A Belgian truck transporting margarine and flour caught fire in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, creating an inferno that within minutes generated a thick cloud of toxic smoke and temperatures in excess of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The magnitude of the catastrophe reopened debate over long-term European transportation policies and exposed significant problems in emergency preparedness on both the French and Italian sides.

Summary of Event

Opened in 1965, the Mont Blanc Tunnel is a single-bore, two-lane transportation tunnel 7.25 miles long, 28.2 feet wide, and 14.3 feet high that cuts through the highest mountain in Western Europe. By 1999, it was handling more than a million vehicles annually, although it had been designed for half that volume. The tunnel was jointly managed by an Italian and a French company that each maintained separate evacuation plans should an emergency arise. The tunnel itself had seventeen pressurized emergency bunkers, located roughly every fifth of a mile, designed to withstand fire for two hours. Ventilation systems, which were substantially unchanged since the tunnel’s opening, ran underneath the tunnel roadway. Before March, 1999, the Autoroute et Tunnel du Mont Blanc, the French company co-responsible for tunnel operations, had not executed a practice emergency rescue involving a simulated fire in more than twenty years. However, in nearly thirty-five years of operation, there had been only sixteen incidents involving vehicular fires, each handily extinguished by the operators themselves. Fires;Mont Blanc Tunnel Mont Blanc Tunnel fire Disasters;fires [kw]Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel (Mar. 24-26, 1999) [kw]Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel, Fire (Mar. 24-26, 1999) [kw]Mont Blanc Tunnel, Fire Disaster Closes (Mar. 24-26, 1999) [kw]Tunnel, Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc (Mar. 24-26, 1999) Fires;Mont Blanc Tunnel Mont Blanc Tunnel fire Disasters;fires [g]Europe;Mar. 24-26, 1999: Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel[10310] [g]France;Mar. 24-26, 1999: Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel[10310] [g]Italy;Mar. 24-26, 1999: Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel[10310] [c]Disasters;Mar. 24-26, 1999: Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel[10310] [c]Transportation;Mar. 24-26, 1999: Fire Disaster Closes Mont Blanc Tunnel[10310] Degrave, Gilbert Tinazzi, Pierlucio Chardon, Rémy Roncoli, Gérard

On March 24, 1999, around 10:45 a.m., a Belgian-registered Volvo FH12 truck with a refrigerated trailer driven by Gilbert Degrave, a veteran driver with twenty-five years of experience, entered the tunnel heading toward Italy. The truck carried more than nine tons of margarine and twelve tons of flour. At about the midway point, Degrave, alerted by drivers on the opposite side flashing lights to him, noticed white smoke coming from under the cab on the right side of his truck.

At 10:53, Degrave eased the truck out of traffic to extinguish the fire himself. He had barely begun to check underneath the truck cab when it was engulfed in a ball of flame, fed by the oily margarine and by a fuel load of more than 145 gallons of diesel. Degrave quickly abandoned the truck and ran toward the Italian side of the tunnel. The burning truck quickly sealed the tunnel traffic behind it—thirty-one vehicles, most of them trucks, that had entered in the nine minutes before the tunnel’s fire alarm had shut off traffic. Because of the tunnel’s narrow construction, the size and volume of the vehicles, and the heavy plumes of black smoke, turning around was impossible. Moreover, as the smoke thickened, vehicle engines, which need oxygen to function, stalled one by one.

Confronting the heavy smoke that the tunnel’s ventilation system could do little to dissipate, drivers secured their windows to await rescue; but as temperatures in the tunnel soared to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, the vehicles and the occupants were incinerated to ash. Many of those who sought the shelter of the tunnel’s bunkers stumbled in the darkness (the tunnel’s electrical system had failed) and were quickly incapacitated by fumes, a lethal mix of carbon monoxide and cyanide, as the fire fed on the combustible isothermal foam of the truck’s refrigerator unit. Later forensic examinations determined that most of the dead were killed within fifteen minutes of the fire’s ignition. Exacerbating the situation, an Italian tunnel security officer pumped fresh air in from the Italian side, thinking that such a measure would help extinguish the fire when it actually fanned the flames and sent the toxic air toward the French side where the vehicles were trapped.

By 11:10, rescue teams from both the French and the Italian sides arrived but could get no closer than 300 yards of the burning truck because of the heat and smoke. Indeed, initial rescue teams had to seek shelter in the tunnel bunkers. The smoke made the tunnel’s surveillance cameras useless to coordinate rescue efforts. Determined to rescue as many of the trapped drivers as possible, rescue workers tried to use the tunnel’s underground ventilation system—but the work was dangerous and frustratingly slow. Survivors later testified to the heroic efforts of Pierlucio Tinazzi, a thirty-six-year-old security guard employed by the tunnel’s Italian operations. As a security guard, Tinazzi would routinely patrol the tunnel on a motorcycle. As the fire quickly raged out of control and the initial attempts to maneuver bulky rescue trucks into the tunnel failed, Tinazzi, protected only by a breathing mask, repeatedly rode his motorcycle into the tunnel for close to an hour. He is credited with rescuing ten people before he succumbed to the toxic fumes and heat.





As the fire fed on the fuel and tires of the dozens of trapped vehicles, rescue efforts as well as efforts to extinguish the fire became futile. Seven hours after the initial alarm, after a French fire engine team rescued sixteen people trapped in one of the tunnel bunkers, rescue teams acknowledged that at that point those still inside the tunnel could not be alive. Efforts to extinguish the fire and to bring the tunnel chamber down to a manageable temperature took more than two days. By then, the fire had melted close to thirty-five hundred feet of asphalt and had brought down more than nine hundred yards of the tunnel’s walls and ceiling. Rescue teams sifting through the molten remains of the vehicles trapped in the tunnel ultimately identified thirty-nine dead, including one firefighter. In addition, thirty-four people, mostly rescue workers, were treated in area hospitals. In the months after the catastrophe, the Italian corporation jointly in charge of tunnel operations paid a little more than seventeen million dollars into a fund set up for the victims’ families.

The cause of the fire was never determined, although investigations raised questions about a defective air filter system on the Volvo truck that may have been ignited by a stray cigarette tossed by a driver ahead of the truck. A critical smoke detector in the tunnel was out of order, and, because the French and Italian rescue teams had never coordinated rescue procedures, initial operations were predictably confusing.

The Mont Blanc Tunnel entrance in Courmayeur, northern Italy, after it was reopened on March 9, 2002. Three years earlier, a Belgian truck caught fire inside the 7.25-mile-long passage, resulting in the deaths of thirty-nine people.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Questions centering on tunnel operations led to a much publicized manslaughter trial in Bonneville, France (February-July, 2005) against twelve individuals and four companies, including Degrave, the Volvo Motor Company, and prominent French and Italian executives, most notably Gérard Roncoli, the head of tunnel security in charge of the rescue operations on the French side, and Rémy Chardon, the chief executive officer of the French public corporation in charge of tunnel operations. Given the magnitude of the catastrophe, many viewed the eventual verdicts as too lenient. Charges against Volvo were dropped entirely; Roncoli was given a six-month jail sentence, and Chardon received a suspended sentence with a steep fine. Degrave, who was charged with failing to pull his vehicle off into a siding so drivers could get past his rig, received a four-month suspended sentence.


Although many residents argued passionately that the tunnel should remain closed, with a somber memorial service, the tunnel was reopened on March 9, 2002. It had been refurbished with fire-resistant, stainless-steel walls, thirty-seven concrete-lined shelters, heat sensors at the tunnel’s entrances and exits to detect vehicles in trouble, three state-of-the-art command centers with computerized fire-detection equipment as well as a twenty-four-hour on-call firefighting team. New regulations prohibited flammable cargoes from being carried through the tunnel. In addition, French and Italian rescue teams coordinated protocols should the tunnel face such a catastrophe again. Emergency planning

Activists concerned over the tunnel’s traffic volume problems and what they perceived to be unaddressed issues of rescue operations (particularly given the rise in terrorism) and environmentalists concerned over increasing pollution from the thousands of trucks that used the tunnel picketed the opening ceremony. However, the reopening was welcomed by European businesses because the long closing had significantly knotted European traffic patterns.

The disaster reopened debate about managing the ever-growing problem of north-south European truck flow (it is estimated one-third of Italian goods pass through the tunnel) and the lack of a coherent European policy for converting from truck to train transportation (the major north-south high-speed rail line is not set to open until 2015). The Mont Blanc Tunnel remains the single most vital artery in the European transportation system and has quickly regained its predisaster volume. Fires;Mont Blanc Tunnel Mont Blanc Tunnel fire Disasters;fires

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Don. Engineering Disasters: Lessons to Be Learned. New York: ASME Press, 2004. Thoroughly researched accounts of significant engineering catastrophes. Provides accessible background to help understand accident investigations and human error.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strauch, Barry. Investigating Human Error: Incidents, Accidents, and Complex Systems. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Technical explanations of error investigation, design responsibilities, decision-making chains, error antecedents and probability curves, and system evaluation and oversight procedure as part of engineering investigations such as the accounting for the tunnel catastrophe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swanson, Diane. Tunnels! Toronto: Annick Press, 2003. Geared for a young adult market, the book nevertheless provides a gripping and informative re-creation of the disaster. With helpful maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whittingham, R. B. The Blame Machine: Why Human Error Causes Accidents. Burlington, Mass.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2004. Places the Mont Blanc disaster within a broad history of system deficiencies and explicates typical causes for such engineering disasters. Provides a helpful account of accident investigation procedures.

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Categories: History