Mont Blanc Tunnel
The Mont Blanc Tunnel is a road
A road is a thoroughfare, route, or way on land between two places, which typically has been paved or otherwise improved to allow travel by some conveyance, including a horse, cart, or motor vehicle. Roads consist of one, or sometimes two, roadways each with one or more lanes and also any...

A tunnel is an underground passageway, completely enclosed except for openings for egress, commonly at each end.A tunnel may be for foot or vehicular road traffic, for rail traffic, or for a canal. Some tunnels are aqueducts to supply water for consumption or for hydroelectric stations or are sewers...

 in the Alps
The Alps is one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west....

 under the Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco , meaning "White Mountain", is the highest mountain in the Alps, Western Europe and the European Union. It rises above sea level and is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence...

 mountain, linking Chamonix
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc or, more commonly, Chamonix is a commune in the Haute-Savoie département in the Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France. It was the site of the 1924 Winter Olympics, the first Winter Olympics...

, Haute-Savoie
Haute-Savoie is a French department in the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France. It borders both Switzerland and Italy. The capital is Annecy. To the north is Lake Geneva and Switzerland; to the south and southeast are the Mont Blanc and Aravis mountain ranges and the French entrance to the Mont...

, France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 (45°54′05"N 006°51′39"E), and Courmayeur
Courmayeur is an Italian town and comune in the autonomous region of Aosta Valley, in northern Italy. It is located at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, in the Graian Alps range, and is crossed by the Dora Baltea...

, Aosta Valley, Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 (45°49′04"N 006°57′07"E). It is one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes, particularly for Italy, which relies on the tunnel for transporting as much as one-third of its freight to northern Europe. It reduces the route from France to Turin
Turin is a city and major business and cultural centre in northern Italy, capital of the Piedmont region, located mainly on the left bank of the Po River and surrounded by the Alpine arch. The population of the city proper is 909,193 while the population of the urban area is estimated by Eurostat...

 by 50 kilometres (31.1 mi) and to Milan
Milan is the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy and of the province of Milan. The city proper has a population of about 1.3 million, while its urban area, roughly coinciding with its administrative province and the bordering Province of Monza and Brianza ,...

 by 100 kilometres (62.1 mi).

Begun in 1957 and completed in 1965, the Mont Blanc Tunnel is 11611 metres (7.2 mi) long, 8.6 metres (28.2 ft) wide, and 4.35 metres (14.3 ft) high. The tunnel is not horizontal, but in a slightly inverted "V". Altitude on the French side: 1274 m (4,179.8 ft); Italian side: 1381 m (4,530.8 ft). The tunnel consists of a single gallery with a two-lane dual direction road.

Plans to widen the tunnel were never implemented because of lack of financing and fierce opposition of local residents who objected to the harmful effects of increased heavy traffic.

The Mont Blanc Tunnel was originally managed by two public companies, each managing half of the tunnel:
  • French side: ATMB (Autoroutes et tunnels du Mont-Blanc), founded 30 April 1958
  • Italian side: SITMB (Società italiana per azioni per il Traforo del Monte Bianco), founded 1 September 1957

After the 1999 fire, which showed how lack of coordination could hamper the safety of the tunnel, all the operations are managed by a single entity: MBT-EEIG, controlled by both ATMB and SITMB together, through a 50–50 shares distribution.

Construction statistics

  • Workforce: 5 engineers and 350 workmen worked an estimated grand total of 4,600,000 man-hours to complete the project.
  • Explosives: 711 tonnes (699.8 LT) of explosives were used to blast 555000 cubic metres (19,599,639.7 cu ft) of rock.
  • Energy: 37 million kiloWatt-hour
    The kilowatt hour, or kilowatt-hour, is a unit of energy equal to 1000 watt hours or 3.6 megajoules.For constant power, energy in watt hours is the product of power in watts and time in hours...

     and 2.7 million litres of fuel for trucks and engines.
  • Other facts: 771,240 bolts, 6,900 drill rods, and 300 tonnes (295.3 LT) of iron were used to support the vault
    Vault (architecture)
    A Vault is an architectural term for an arched form used to provide a space with a ceiling or roof. The parts of a vault exert lateral thrust that require a counter resistance. When vaults are built underground, the ground gives all the resistance required...

    , 5000 cubic metres (176,573.3 cu ft) of formwork for 60000 tonnes (59,052.2 LT) of cement (mixed with 280000 m³ (9,888,106.5 cu ft) of aggregates
    Aggregate (composite)
    Aggregate is the component of a composite material that resists compressive stress and provides bulk to the composite material. For efficient filling, aggregate should be much smaller than the finished item, but have a wide variety of sizes...


History until 1999

  • 1946: A hundred metres are drilled on the Italian side, marking the project start.
  • 1947: Franco-Italian Agreement signed for the planning of a tunnel under Mont Blanc.
  • 1953: Signature of a national charter for the tunnel construction, ratified by the parliaments of France (in 1954, by 544 votes against 32) and Italy (in 1957).
  • 1957: Formation of the STMB (Société du tunnel du Mont Blanc), which became ATMB (Autoroutes et Tunnel du Mont Blanc) in 1996.
  • 1959: In May, the French and Italian Public Works Ministers officially launch the drilling work. On 30 May in Chamonix, a ceremony is held for the start of the drilling work for the Mont Blanc Tunnel in the presence of the Public Minister for Labour. It is announced that a giant 75 tonnes (73.8 LT) tunnel boring machine
    Tunnel boring machine
    A tunnel boring machine also known as a "mole", is a machine used to excavate tunnels with a circular cross section through a variety of soil and rock strata. They can bore through anything from hard rock to sand. Tunnel diameters can range from a metre to almost 16 metres to date...

     will make it possible to bore the tunnel in less than 30 months.
  • 4 August 1962: Meeting of the French and Italian drilling teams. The opening was successful, the axis variation was less than 13 centimetres.
  • 16 July 1965: Inauguration of the tunnel by the French president, Charles de Gaulle
    Charles de Gaulle
    Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969....

    , and the Italian President, Giuseppe Saragat
    Giuseppe Saragat
    Giuseppe Saragat was an Italian politician who was the fifth President of the Italian Republic from 1964 to 1971.Saragat was born in Turin, from Sardinian parents....

  • 19 July 1965: Tunnel opens to traffic.
  • 1973: Opening of the first section of the Autoroute Blanche
    A40 autoroute
    The Autoroute A40 is a spectacular motorway in France that extends from Mâcon on the west to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains on the east, terminating not far from Chamonix and the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The road runs through Bresse, the high southern Jura Mountains, northern Prealps and French Alps. It was...

  • 1978: A network of surveillance cameras is installed every 300 metres (984.3 ft) and the total capacity of fresh air supply is increased to 900 m3/s.
  • 1980: An additional air shaft, 7 metres (23 ft) in diameter, is built to avoid the build-up of foul air at the French end of the tunnel.
  • 1990: Part of a multi-year modernization plan, the following work is done:
    • The installation of third generation video surveillance cameras with fibre-optic data transmission.
    • The construction of 18 pressurized emergency shelters, every 600 metres (1,968.5 ft), and safety recesses every 100 metres (328.1 ft).
    • The installation of a pressurized sprinkler system .
    • The replacement of safety features: phone terminals, fire extinguishers, power generators.
  • 1997: The start of a fire detection system and the start of a study for automatic incident detection, centralized safety equipment management, and new variable message sign
    Variable message sign
    A variable- message sign, often abbreviated VMS, CMS, or DMS, and in the UK known as a matrix sign,...


The 1999 fire

On the morning of Wednesday, 24 March 1999, 39 people died when a Belgian
Belgium , officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, and those of several other major international organisations such as NATO.Belgium is also a member of, or affiliated to, many...

 transport truck carrying flour
Flour is a powder which is made by grinding cereal grains, other seeds or roots . It is the main ingredient of bread, which is a staple food for many cultures, making the availability of adequate supplies of flour a major economic and political issue at various times throughout history...

 and margarine
Margarine , as a generic term, can indicate any of a wide range of butter substitutes, typically composed of vegetable oils. In many parts of the world, the market share of margarine and spreads has overtaken that of butter...

 caught fire in the tunnel. After several km, the driver realized something was wrong as cars coming in the opposite direction flashed their headlights at him; a glance in his mirrors showed white smoke coming out from under his cab. This was not yet a fire emergency; there had been 16 other truck fires in the tunnel over the previous 35 years, always extinguished on the spot by the drivers.

At 10:53 CET, the driver of the vehicle, Gilbert Degrave, stopped in the middle of the tunnel to attempt to fight the fire but he was suddenly forced back by flames erupting from his cab.

At 10:55, the tunnel employees triggered the fire alarm and stopped any further traffic from entering. At this point the tunnel was populated by at least 10 cars/vans and 18 trucks that had entered from the French side. A few vehicles from the Italian side passed the Volvo
AB Volvo is a Swedish builder of commercial vehicles, including trucks, buses and construction equipment. Volvo also supplies marine and industrial drive systems, aerospace components and financial services...

 truck without stopping. Some of the cars from the French side managed to turn around in the narrow 2-lane tunnel to retreat back to France, but negotiating the road in the dense smoke that had rapidly filled the tunnel quickly made this impossible. The larger trucks didn't have the space to turn around, and reversing out wasn't an option.

Most drivers rolled up their windows and waited for rescue. The ventilation system in the tunnel drove toxic smoke back down the tunnel faster than anyone could run to safety. These fumes quickly filled the tunnel and caused vehicle engines to stall; they needed oxygen to run. Many drivers near the blaze who attempted to leave their cars and seek refuge points were quickly overcome.

Within minutes, two fire trucks from Chamonix
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc or, more commonly, Chamonix is a commune in the Haute-Savoie département in the Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France. It was the site of the 1924 Winter Olympics, the first Winter Olympics...

 responded to the unfolding disaster. The fire had melted the wiring and plunged the tunnel into darkness; in the smoke and with abandoned and wrecked vehicles blocking their path, the large fire engines were unable to proceed. The fire crews instead abandoned their vehicles and took refuge in two of the emergency fire cubicles (fire-door sealed small rooms set into the walls every 600 metres). As they huddled behind the fire doors, they could hear burning fuel roll down the road surface, causing tires to pop and fuel tanks to explode. They were rescued five hours later by a third fire crew that responded and reached them via a ventilation duct; of the 15 firefighters that had been trapped, 14 were in serious condition and one (their commanding officer) died in the hospital.

Some victims escaped to the fire cubicles. The original fire doors on the cubicles were rated to survive for two hours. Some had been upgraded in the 34 years since the tunnel was built to survive for four hours. However, the fire burned for 53 hours and reached temperatures of 1000 °C (1,832 °F) mainly because of the margarine load in the trailer, equivalent to a 23000 litres (48,607.7 US pt) oil tanker, which spread to other cargo vehicles nearby that also carried combustible loads. Slowly, everything became part of the inferno. It trapped around 40 vehicles in dense and poisonous smoke (containing carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide , also called carbonous oxide, is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that is slightly lighter than air. It is highly toxic to humans and animals in higher quantities, although it is also produced in normal animal metabolism in low quantities, and is thought to have some normal...

 and cyanide
A cyanide is a chemical compound that contains the cyano group, -C≡N, which consists of a carbon atom triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom. Cyanides most commonly refer to salts of the anion CN−. Most cyanides are highly toxic....

). Due to weather conditions at the time, airflow through the tunnel was from the Italian side to the French side. Authorities compounded the effect by pumping in further fresh air from the Italian side, forcing poisonous black smoke through the length of the tunnel. Only vehicles below the inferno on the French side of the tunnel were trapped, while cars on the Italian side of the fire were mostly unaffected. 27 people died in their vehicles. 10 died trying to escape on foot. Of the initial 50 people trapped by the fire, 12 survived. It would be over five days before the tunnel cooled sufficiently for anyone to go back in, to start repairs.

Pierlucio Tinazzi

Pierlucio Tinazzi
Pierlucio Tinazzi
Pierlucio Tinazzi was an Italian security guard who perished while rescuing survivors of the 1999 Mont Blanc tunnel fire. Part of his job involved riding back and forth through the tunnel on his motorcycle to keep traffic flowing, dispatching tow trucks and providing motorist assistance as needed...

, an Italian security guard employed by the SITMB, is credited with saving at least 10 of the 12 survivors. Another source credits him with helping all 12.
Tinazzi died while helping victims of the fire. His job was to ride up and down the tunnel to see that everything was running smoothly. He was on the French side at the time emergency services had given up. He donned breathing equipment
Self contained breathing apparatus
A self contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, sometimes referred to as a Compressed Air Breathing Apparatus , air pack, or simply Breathing Apparatus is a device worn by rescue workers, firefighters, and others to provide breathable air in an IDLH Atmosphere...

 and rode into the tunnel on his BMW K75
The BMW K75 was a standard motorcycle produced by BMW Motorrad from 1985 to 1995. At the time of its introduction, the K75 was BMW's cheapest motorcycle...

 motorcycle. He was in radio contact with the Italian side for over an hour before succumbing to the intense heat. His motorcycle melted into the pavement after he dragged an unconscious truck driver behind a fire door. A commemorative plaque at the Italian entrance honors his heroism.


The tunnel underwent major changes in the three years it remained closed after the fire. Renovations include computerised detection equipment, extra security bays, a parallel escape shaft and a fire station in the middle of the tunnel complete with double cabbed fire trucks. The safety shafts also have clean oxygen flowing through them via air vents. Any people in the security bays now have video contact with the control centre, so they can communicate with the people trapped inside and inform them about what is happening in the tunnel more clearly.

A remote site for cargo safety inspection was created on each side: Aosta (I) and Passy-Le Fayet (F). Here all trucks are inspected well before the tunnel entrance. The same areas are also used as staging areas, to smooth the peaks of commercial traffic.

The experience gained from the investigation into the fire was one of the principal factors that led to the creation of the French Land Transport Accident Investigation Bureau (Bureau d'Enquêtes sur les Accidents de Transport Terrestre).

Manslaughter trial

In Grenoble
Grenoble is a city in southeastern France, at the foot of the French Alps where the river Drac joins the Isère. Located in the Rhône-Alpes region, Grenoble is the capital of the department of Isère...

, France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, 16 people and companies were tried on 31 January 2005 for manslaughter
Manslaughter is a legal term for the killing of a human being, in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is said to have first been made by the Ancient Athenian lawmaker Dracon in the 7th century BC.The law generally differentiates...

. Defendants in the trial included:
  • Gilbert Degrave, the Belgian
    Demographics of Belgium
    This article is about the demographic features of the population of Belgium, including ethnicity, education level, health of the populace, economic status, religious affiliations and other aspects of the population...

     driver of the truck that caused the fire
  • Volvo
    AB Volvo is a Swedish builder of commercial vehicles, including trucks, buses and construction equipment. Volvo also supplies marine and industrial drive systems, aerospace components and financial services...

    , the truck's manufacturer
  • French and Italian managers of the tunnel
  • ATMB and SITMB
  • Safety regulators
  • Mayor
    In many countries, a Mayor is the highest ranking officer in the municipal government of a town or a large urban city....

     of Chamonix
  • A senior official of the French Ministry of Public Works
    Public works
    Public works are a broad category of projects, financed and constructed by the government, for recreational, employment, and health and safety uses in the greater community...


The cause of the fire is disputed. Different accounts report it to be a cigarette stub carelessly thrown at the truck, and it supposedly entered the engine induction snorkel above the cab, setting the paper air filter on fire, a mechanical or electrical fault, or poor maintenance of the truck's engine. The closest smoke detector was out of order and French emergency services do not use the same radio frequency as those inside the tunnel. The Italian company responsible for operating the tunnel, SITMB, paid €13.5 million ($17.5 million US) to a fund for the families of the victims. Édouard Balladur
Édouard Balladur
Édouard Balladur is a French politician who served as Prime Minister of France from 29 March 1993 to 10 May 1995.-Biography:Balladur was born in İzmir, Turkey, to an Armenian Catholic family with five children and long-standing ties to France...

, former president of the French company operating the tunnel (from 1968 to 1980), then later Prime Minister of France
Prime Minister of France
The Prime Minister of France in the Fifth Republic is the head of government and of the Council of Ministers of France. The head of state is the President of the French Republic...

, was heard as a witness. He was asked about the security measures that he took or failed to take. Balladur claimed that a lot was prevented by the division of the tunnel into two sections operated by two companies (one in France, the other in Italy) which did not take a concerted approach. On 27 July 2005, thirteen defendants were found guilty, and handed sentences ranging from fines to suspended prison sentences, to 6 months in jail.
  • Gerard Roncoli, the head of security at the tunnel, was given a 6 month jail term plus an additional 24 months suspended sentence, the heaviest sentence levied against any of the defendants.
  • Remy Chardon, former president of the French company operating the tunnel, was given a two-year suspended jail term and a fine of approximately $18,000 US.
  • Gilbert Degrave, the driver of the truck, was given a four-month suspended sentence.
  • Seven other people, including the tunnel's Italian security chief, were handed suspended terms and fines. Three companies were fined up to $180,000 US each. The charges against Volvo were dropped.

See also

  • National Geographic Seconds From Disaster episodes

External links

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