Three-month Mont Blanc tunnel fire trial ends

29th April 2005, Comments 0 comments

BONNEVILLE, France, April 29 (AFP) - A major French trial aimed at establishing responsibility for a deadly 1999 blaze in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy wrapped up here Friday, with a verdict due in July.

BONNEVILLE, France, April 29 (AFP) - A major French trial aimed at establishing responsibility for a deadly 1999 blaze in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy wrapped up here Friday, with a verdict due in July.  

Twelve individuals and four companies went on trial three months ago in the eastern French town of Bonneville, including the driver of the truck which caught fire half-way through the Alpine tunnel on March 24, 1999.  

The blaze in the 11-kilometre (6.8-mile) tunnel killed 39 people and was one of the worst road disasters ever to take place in Europe.  

The French court said it would deliver its verdict on July 27.  

State prosecutor Vincent Le Pannerer asked the court to give a six-month suspended jail term to Belgian lorry driver Gilbert Degrave.  

The prosecutor asked for the toughest sentence - a suspended term of three years in jail and a 12,000-euro (15,700-dollar) fine - for Gerard Roncoli, head of security at the French end of the tunnel.  

Suspended jail terms of between eight months and two years were requested for the directors of the French and Italian operating companies at the time, the tunnel regulators, as well as the mayor of nearby Chamonix, Michel Charlet.  

But the prosecutor asked the court to acquit the Swedish car company Volvo, the truck's manufacturer, and overrule allegations that a design fault was to blame.  

Degrave was on his regular journey transporting flour and margarine from Belgium to Italy when he saw fire and smoke emerging from his vehicle half-way through the Mont Blanc tunnel, prompting him to stop and escape on foot.  

The fire spread to traffic backed up behind, engulfing 24 goods vehicles, nine cars and a motorcycle 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 the intensity of the blaze - instead of extracting the smoke.  

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

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

© AFP

Subject: French News

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