A ROW between France and Italy has delayed the £130M repairs to the fire-damaged Mont Blanc road tunnel, it emerged this week. Forty one people died in the blaze last March.
Repairs are now unlikely to start until April at the earliest, more than a year after the fire.
Italy is understood to have objected to a plan by a French investigating magistrate to hold a reconstruction of the fire as part of an evidence- gathering operation. It has now given the go ahead for the event in late March or early April.
It is thought the Italian government's reluctance stemmed from fears that it would unearth failures at the Italian end of the tunnel.
The technical investigation into the fire has already identified that Italian operators reversed the smoke extractors at a crucial moment during the fire, fanning oxygen to the flames (NCE 15 April 1999).
The blaze swept through the tunnel last March after a refrigerated lorry carrying flour and margarine ignited just over 6km from the French entrance to the 11.6km tunnel.
Firemen took 51 hours to control the blaze which left 600m of tunnel damaged. Sections of the deck were so badly affected that they were in danger of collapsing into ventilation ducts under the road.
French investigating magistrates will use the reconstruction to gather evidence before deciding who to prosecute. A refrigerator lorry of the same type carrying a similar load will be set alight to monitor changes in temperature and gases given off. Investigators believe that most of those killed in the tunnel died within 15 minutes of the fire starting.
The reconstruction will help determine whether victims died of burns, poisoning from refrigeration gases or from smoke inhalation.
Ventilation systems were damaged in the fire but are expected to work well enough to replicate conditions.
Repair contracts have still to be awarded, but earlier this month French motorway operator Scetauroute and its Italian counterpart Spea were chosen to project manage the work.
Joint government report on the Mont Blanc tunnel fire is available on the French public works ministry website at www.equipement.gouv.fr/ actualites/dossiers/1999/rapmont-blanc