A Deadly Blaze in the Alps Made a Biker a Hero and Tunnels Safer for All

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.

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.

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.

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