The tunnel is 11.6 kilometres long and cuts beneath Europe’s highest mountain, the Mont Blanc. A Belgian truck, carrying flour and margarine, was halfway through the mountain when the motor caught fire. The fire rapidly spread to cars nearby, causing a dense, poisonous smoke.
The tunnel turned into an inferno, asphalt melted and tyres exploded due to temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celcius. The tunnel design prevented escape and most of the victims were found behind the wheel of their cars.
Rescue teams from France, Italy and Switzerland struggled for more than 30 hours to get the fire under control. Many of these firemen were among the victims of the fire, among them an Italian fireman who saved 10 people, driving in and out of the tunnel on his motorcycle.
The fire department claimed it had warned the Mont Blanc Tunnel Company the year before about the difficulty of carrying out major rescue operations in the tunnel.
The company denied having ever seen the document referred to by the fire department. They claimed that the ventilation systems and pressurised emergency shelters worked efficiently, but critics argued that the ventilation system is from 1961, when the tunnel was built, and apparently not adequate for today’s traffic situation. One ventilation shaft in each end of the almost 12 kilometer long tunnel was not enough to extract the smoke.
Furthermore, since most victims died in their cars, they apparently had no opportunity to get to the emergency shelters.
Every two years a similar accident happens involving heavy trucks. Because of the altitude, the motor overheats and sometimes catches fire.
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