Tunnel Inferno is the 2nd episode of Seconds from Disaster and explores the causes of one of the worst tunnel fires.
On 24 March 1999, at 10:30 CET, Nicholas Borghi and John Whitby drive into the tunnel from the Italian side. Nicholas Borghi is a skier, heading from his home in Italy to ski resorts in France. John Whitby was driving his lorry (large freight trucks) to France. Then at 10:47 CET, a 40 ton refigerated lorry enters the French side of the tunnel. Its load is usual, 9 tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour, heading for a food factory in Milan. The driver was a 57-year-old Belgian driver called Gilbert Degraves, with 25 years of lorry-driving experience. Possibly, during its trip in the tunnel, a discarded cigerette landed in the paper air filter. The fire burning the filter spreads to the engine, causing that to burn. This small fire releases smoke not dense enough to trigger sensors that indicate visibility. If visibility is reduced by 30%, the alarm will sound. Cars passing by tried to get Degraves' attention by flashing headlights and honking at him. Finally, Degraves could not take the smoke any longer. He got out of his lorry to reach for the fire extinguisher, as drivers have done in previous lorry fires. When Degraves got the extinguisher, the lorry suddenly exploded at 10:53 CET. Degraves abandoned his lorry and ran towards Italy. Then, a queue quickly forms behind the lorry. They could not see the danger ahead. Nicholas Borghi say a bright glow, and by the time he got within 30 metres, he saw a massive flame and Degraves running away. He then reversed and headed for Italy. John Whitby saw thick black smoke billowing out of the fire and stopped his lorry. He could not reverse because his lorry was too long and Whitby abandoned it. The sensors do alarm the French control room, but not the Italian room because they turned off the sensors because of false alarms. At 10:54 CET, rescue teams from France enter the tunnel. They were forced to abandon their vehicle and stay in a maintenance room because of the smoke and other vehicles in the way. Then 3 minutes later, firefighters entered the tunnel from Chamonix. They also had to abort the mission because of smoke. By 11:00 CET, Italian rescuers drove into the Italian side. Whitby was by his lorry when they came. The rescue team could get within 10 metres from the lorry on fire because smoke was spreading quickly to France, and slowly to Italy. But popping tires forced them to turn back. The rescue team rescued Degraves, Whitby, and ten other drivers. Italian firefighters then came in, but the thick smoke forced them to stay in Refuge 24. Then, a team of Italian firefighters rescue all the firefighters and rescue teams trapped through the ventilation duct under the road. The 38 people left died of inhaling smoke and burned to death. The inferno burned for 53 hours, and it took 5 days for the tunnel to cool down to start repairs. Then, after 3 years of closure, the Mont Blanc Tunnel opened, with new safety features. Outside the toll booth, there are thermal sensors for lorries. Fire trucks are equipped with heat sensors, to allow sight in the smoke. There is a fire staion in the middle of the tunnel. Speed limits and vehicle distance were strictly enforced. Refuges are pressurised, and there is a video link to one control room for both entrances. Now, refuges are placed every 300 metres. There is an emergency exit at each refuge that leads into an escape route to France or Italy, under the road.
Why it all happenedEdit
The engine could overheat during the long climb up the Alps. The engine could have overheated and started the fire. Or, it could be a cigarette that landed in the air filters. The reason why the tunnel inferno was so hot was the margarine. Margarine has a lot of energy. When burned, the fire releases all that energy into heat. That is why it was so hot. 9 tons of margarine would equal a huge tank of petroleum (gasoline).