Mont Blanc tunnel trial set to open

27th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

GRENOBLE, France, Jan 27 (AFP) - A total of 16 individuals and companies will appear in court on Monday for a three-month trial that will seek to determine responsibility for the 1999 inferno in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy which killed 39 people.

GRENOBLE, France, Jan 27 (AFP) - A total of 16 individuals and companies will appear in court on Monday for a three-month trial that will seek to determine responsibility for the 1999 inferno in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy which killed 39 people.

Among those accused of "involuntary homicide by error, imprudence, inattention, negligence or failing to observe safety requirements" is Gilbert Degrave, the 62 year-old Belgian driver of the refrigerated Volvo lorry that was the origin of the conflagration.

Degrave fiercely denies that he was at fault, claiming in a press conference this week that he is being made a scapegoat.

"I am not afraid of going to trial. I am completely easy about it because I know I did nothing wrong... The tunnel was not properly maintained and Volvo allowed lorries on the roads even after there had been fires on board.

But they are trying to make me carry the can," he said.

Also on trial are the French and Italian companies which operate the 11-kilometre (6.8-mile) tunnel beneath the Alps, along with safety regulators, the mayor of the town of Chamonix and a senior official from the French public works ministry.

The Swedish vehicle manufacturer Volvo faces allegations that it knew of design faults in the engine of the lorry, which may have been the cause of the fire.

On March 24, 1999 Degrave was on his regular journey transporting flour and margarine from Brussels to Parma when he saw fire and smoke emerging from his vehicle at the six-kilometre mark inside the tunnel.

The fire spread to the traffic backed up behind, engulfing 24 goods vehicles, nine cars and a motor-cycle in an inferno which raged for more than two days and reached temperatures of 1,000 degrees centigrade. Most of the dead suffocated in the poisonous smoke.

The technical report into the fire established a series of oversights and blunders. The nearest smoke detector was out of order and the radio frequencies used inside the tunnel were different from the ones used by French emergency services.

It was also shown that the Italian authorities mistakenly pumped fresh air into the fire zone - unwittingly increasing its intensity - instead of extracting the smoke.

However arguments remain over the spark that set off the chain of events - whether it was a cigarette stub, a fault in the Volvo engine, or poor maintenance.

Degrave is accused of failing to move his vehicle into a siding so that the drivers trapped behind him could get past. But he denies that this was possible.

"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 said.

The tunnel was closed for three years and underwent a major renovation, with computerised 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 Mont Blanc disaster was followed by two more tunnel fires - in Austria's Tauern tunnel in May 1999 with 12 dead, and the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland in October 2001 with 11 dead - leading to stricter EU norms.

Opened in 1965, the Mont Blanc tunnel had seen a vast increase in heavy goods traffic in the years before the disaster. Today some 925 lorries pass through the tunnel on average every day - down from 2,120 per day before the fire.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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