Mont Blanc killer fire trial opens six years on

31st January 2005, Comments 0 comments

BONNEVILLE, France, Jan 31 (AFP) - A major trial aimed at establishing responsibility for an inferno in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy that killed 39 people nearly six years ago opened here Monday.

BONNEVILLE, France, Jan 31 (AFP) - A major trial aimed at establishing responsibility for an inferno in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy that killed 39 people nearly six years ago opened here Monday.  

Twelve individuals and four companies are defendants in the case being heard in the eastern French town of Bonneville, including the driver of the truck which caught fire half-way through the 11-kilometre (6.8-mile) tunnel through the Alps on March 24, 1999.  

The blaze spread to 24 goods vehicles, nine cars and a motorbike backed up behind the stopped truck, creating thick smoke that killed most of the victims. It took firefighters three days to extinguish the flames.  

The truck's manufacturer, Volvo, the Italian and French companies that manage the tunnel, safety regulators and the mayor of the nearby town of Chamonix are among the others in the dock.  

The trial is expected to last three months, and will examine the chain of events - and several mistakes - that occurred in the tragedy.  

Hundreds of people turned out for the first day of the trial which was taking place in a specially renovated building separate from the smaller Bonneville courthouse.  

The French proceedings were being accompanied by simultaneous English, German and Italian interpretation, reflecting the binational ownership of the tunnel and the various European nationalities of the victims.  

Twenty experts and 160 witnesses are to take the stand over the coming months.   Arguments remain as to whether the initial spark in the blaze was caused by a cigarette stub, a fault in the Volvo's engine, or poor maintenance.  

The tunnel was closed for three years after the blaze and underwent a major renovation, with computerised smoke detection equipment, extra security bays and a parallel escape shaft.  

Coordination between the French and Italian sides - which was strongly criticised in the technical report - has been improved.  

The Italian company that jointly operates the tunnel, the SITMB, last week paid EUR 13.5 million (EUR 17.5 million) into an escrow account for the families of the victims, to be paid out once 80 percent of the 238 relatives agree to accept it as settlement.  

But SITMB's lawyer, Bernard Asso, stressed on Thursday: "This is not an acknowledgement of liability."  

French newspapers gave several pages to coverage of the trial and recalled the facts in the case.  

All highlighted a series of grave errors that contributed to the death toll, including the slowness of response from and lack of coordination between the French and Italian companies managing the tunnel, and an Italian safety officer's mistaken decision to pump fresh air into the fire zone, thus increasing its intensity.  

Much attention will be focused on the 62-year-old Belgian driver, Gilbert Degrave, who managed to escape from his flaming truck, which was left in the tunnel, blocking traffic behind it in the smoke and flames.  

Degrave has said he feared being made a scapegoat in the disaster and said he was forced to leave his vehicle where it was.  

"There was no way I could have got to the siding. It all happened so fast and I had to take a snap decision. So I decided it was better to let the lorry come slowly to a halt in order to avoid a pile-up behind. And the engine conked out as I came to a halt," he told a media conference last week.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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