In 1954 a national charter was ratified by the French and Italian governments for the construction of a tunnel running beneath the Mont Blanc massif, between Chamonix in France and Courmayeur in Italy. It would be a two- lane stretch of road 11.6 km (7.25 mi) long and 8.6 m (28.2 ft) wide. The tunnel opened in July 1965 and quickly became a highly popular route for both passenger cars and freight lorries.
In March 1999 a Belgian freight vehicle, carrying margarine and flour, caught fire in the Italian section. At 10.53 driver Gilbert Degrave, realizing that smoke was appearing from beneath his lorry, halted immediately. He attempted to deal with the problem, but when his cab went up in flames he was forced back.
A couple of minutes later the tunnel fire alarm sounded, preventing further traffic from entering the tunnel. But almost 40 vehicles had already driven in from either side. Some tried to turn around and drive back, but larger vehicles couldn’t maneuver in the narrow space. Most drivers closed their windows and waited for rescue, while a few escaped into the fire safety cubicles that were set at regular intervals along the tunnel walls. But the fire doors had been built to last for only two to four hours, not the 56 hours that the fire raged.
The tunnel’s ventilation system proved lethal, driving dense, black, toxic smoke and fumes back into the tunnel, which by now was without electricity. Fire trucks from both ends arrived fast, but their path was blocked by burning vehicles. Altogether 36 vehicles were involved in the fire, and 39 people died. Repairs and renovations took almost three years to complete. Today many new safety measures are in place and all HGVs are thoroughly checked before being allowed to travel.
When was the Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire: March 24 1999
Where was the Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire: Mont Blanc Tunnel, Italy
What was the Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire death toll: 39
You should know: In January 2005 16 companies and individuals were tried in Grenoble for manslaughter. On July 27 2005 13 of these were found guilty and received fines and suspended sentences. The head of security for the tunnel was given a six-month prison sentence.