Twenty years ago Sunday, a fire deep inside an Alpine tunnel killed 39 people and turned a motorcycle-riding security guard who worked there into a hero. In the chaos just after the blaze, local French and Italian newspapers reported that the biker had raced in and out of the burning tunnel, saving as many as 10 people before dying in one last rescue attempt.
It was some time before investigators released a final, accurate account of the disaster at the Mont Blanc Tunnel: The biker, who was known by his nickname, Spadino, an Italian riff on his skinny frame, had not saved anyone. But he died trying to do so, and local bikers still gather at the tunnel mouth once a year to honor him.
While the legend was exaggerated, the horror of the fire — and its impact on tunnel safety — cannot be overstated. The lessons of the tragedy have guided tunnel design and engineering ever since, including recent American projects like the Port of Miami Tunnel and Seattle’s new S.R. 99 Tunnel.
The Mont Blanc Tunnel opened to traffic in 1965. When built, it was the world’s longest road tunnel, linking the French and Italian highway systems and shortening truck routes between Italy’s industrial north and other parts of Europe. It had been open nearly 35 years without a single fatal incident until the morning of March 24, 1999.
Around 11 a.m., a Volvo FH12 tractor-trailer, registered in Belgium, stopped to pay the toll. It was an ordinary truck with ordinary cargo: nine tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour.
To this day, no one can say with certainty why the rig caught fire. The driver, who had been alerted to a problem by oncoming vehicles, stopped almost in the middle of the 7.2-mile tunnel. When he climbed out of the cab, flames burst from under the truck, and he leapt back. Witnesses reported that the fire had very quickly become too intense to drive past.
Spadino — Pierlucio Tinazzi, who got his nickname, Italian for a thin, light sword, when he was young — was just outside the French portal on his motorcycle. It’s not clear whether he suspected trouble or thought he was making a routine trip back to the Italian portal. Regardless, he followed a few other heavy trucks in.
Mr. Tinazzi was most likely the first tunnel employee to realize the Belgian truck was trailing smoke. The last few drivers who made it into France said the motorcyclist had appeared to be trying to catch up to the burning truck.
He never quite got there. Near the fire, he came upon Maurice Lebras, a French truck driver who was unconscious. In his last radio communication with the control room, Mr. Tinazzi said he had dragged the trucker into a fire refuge off the main tunnel. He closed the fire door and waited.
The refuge had a fire door rated to a “four-hour” standard. The fire burned for 50 hours.
A few minutes after Mr. Tinazzi rode in, two trucks from the Chamonix Fire Department arrived carrying 14 firefighters. They plunged into thick, toxic smoke. Moments later, the fire melted the wiring for the lights, plunging the tunnel into darkness. Their trucks stuck now, the firefighters retreated into two refuges.
In the tunnel, the margarine had melted and then turned into a highly flammable vapor. A strong breeze created a blast-furnace effect, igniting the fuel in other abandoned vehicles. Temperatures reached 1,000 degrees Celsius, or 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Five hours later and with no time to spare, a rescue crew reached the firemen via a ventilation duct. All of them survived but their commanding officer, who died in a hospital.
It was a week before the tunnel cooled enough for forensic investigators to recover bodies. Most of the victims had almost certainly suffocated before they burned. That was a small mercy.
The blaze was traumatic for the close-knit Alpine communities of the French Haute-Savoie region and Val d’Aosta in Italy. Compounding the emotional toll, a lengthy renovation closed the tunnel and hurt tourist traffic.
The region needed a hero, and soon after the fire, the government of Italy honored Mr. Tinazzi with a gold medal for civilian bravery. The International Motorcycle Federation, the world governing body of motorcycle sport, presented its highest award to his family. Its citation, like those early newspaper reports, credited Mr. Tinazzi with saving several people, even though the legend of the biker-hero “had been woven by the Italian media before anyone knew exactly what had really happened,” said Antoine Chandellier, a French journalist who has reported on the region for decades.
The magnitude of death and destruction reverberated widely. It so shocked civil engineers who specialize in tunnel construction that many remember where they were when they learned the news.
William Connell, a tunnel systems engineer, was working on the enormous tunnel project known as the Big Dig in Boston at the time of the fire. “Initially, there was a lot of conjecture, and uneasiness, about how a fire of that size could become so deadly and produce so much damage,” Mr. Connell said.
Before Mont Blanc, tunnel engineers were divided on the benefit of sprinkler systems. Concerns included impaired visibility for motorists as well as reliability and maintenance costs. Only five United States road tunnels had been equipped with sprinklers.
“When the full report on the Mont Blanc fire finally came out, it was evident that additional measures of fire protection and emergency response planning would have reduced the significance of the fire,” Mr. Connell recalled.
In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association publishes a document with a dry title but life-or-death consequences: “NFPA 502: Standard for Road Tunnels, Bridges and Other Limited Access Highways.”
Mr. Connell served as chairman of the association’s technical committee on tunnel safety from 2005 until 2015. After the Mont Blanc report highlighted the French and Italian operators’ lack of preparedness, the committee made formal emergency response plans and regular training exercises part of the standard. Recognizing that road tunnels were more common in Europe, Asia and Australia, he recruited international expertise to the committee.
The association writes standards, not laws; it’s up to the local authorities to adopt them. When the Florida Department of Transportation decided to construct its first major road tunnel in 2010, the association’s 502 standard was incorporated into the Florida Fire Prevention Code.
Chris Hodgkins is the chief executive of Miami Tunnel, the company that built and operates the three-quarter-mile tunnel connecting the Port of Miami with the Interstate highway system. The tunnel diverts traffic that used to crawl through downtown.
“We learned from Mont Blanc that people don’t die from the fire — they die from the fumes and smoke,” Mr. Hodgkins said. “We have 44 jet fans that can operate in either direction, so we can suck air away from the fire, so toxins don’t affect people in the tunnel.”
The Miami tunnel is a “twin-bore” tunnel, with a separate passageway for traffic in each direction. It has cross-passages every 450 feet so that, in a fire, people can escape through the other tunnel.
In Seattle, the recently opened S.R. 99 Tunnel carries two stacked roadbeds, in an immense single-bore tunnel under downtown, running for nearly two miles. It includes heat detectors that can locate a fire to within 10 feet, and, as in Miami, a deluge system can dump several tropical rainstorms’ worth of water into a fire zone, while leaving the rest of the tunnel dry.
Brian Russell, the civil engineer who served as project manager on the S.R. 99 Tunnel, said the boring machine was 57½ feet in diameter, providing room for spaces for safety systems in addition to the roadways.
“People think of tunnels as a hole through the ground,” he said, “but that’s not the case anymore. I tell people, ‘This is like a building for cars.’”
The Seattle tunnel includes refuges every 650 feet, which open into a passage with its own fresh air supply — a tunnel within the tunnel — for escape.
The Mont Blanc Tunnel finally reopened in 2002. A French engineer, Jean-Marc Berthier, led development of a unified safety protocol for the Franco-Italian venture, and served as the tunnel’s administrator for the next few years. Since then, Mr. Berthier has become a global evangelist for tunnel fire safety.
“In 2016, we had Jean-Marc perform a safety review of the Port of Miami Tunnel,” Mr. Hodgkins recalls. “At one point, I mentioned that we’d never had a fire, and he banged his hand on the table and said, ‘Yet!’”
Sure enough, in December 2017, a car erupted into flames in the tunnel. The driver escaped unhurt; the deluge system kept the fire under control until a Miami-Dade fire crew arrived. The jet fans kept the tunnel air clear while it was evacuated.
There were no casualties. In less than two hours, the tunnel was reopened to traffic.