FAILURE TO organise proper fire drills and to learn lessons from previous disasters contributed to the deaths of 39 people in the 1998 Mont Blanc tunnel fire, a French judge ruled last week.
Ten people and the three companies responsible for operating the 11km single tube road tunnel were found guilty of manslaughter for their roles in the blaze.
The disaster was triggered by a truck catching fire close to the mid point of the 11km tunnel on 24 March 1999 (NCE 1/8 April 1999). The tunnel straddles the French/Italian border.
The judge criticised the tunnel's operators for failing to hold regular full scale fi re drills inside the tunnel. Before the fire, the most recent drill had taken place in 1973.
The judge also criticised the tunnel's French head of security, Gerard Roncoli, for failing to organise drills and failing to act on a request from the local Chamonix fire department for a fire drill.
Roncoli received the stiffest sentence. He was ordered to serve six months of a 36 month prison sentence, with the remainder suspended. He was criticised for failing to learn the lessons of a 'near miss' fire in the tunnel in 1990 when no-one was killed.
Mayor of Chamonix Michel Charlet was also criticised by the judge for failing to follow up the fire drill request, as he was ultimately responsible for the fire department. He received a E1,500 (£1,000) fine and a six month suspended prison sentence.
The judge also criticised the tunnel operators' failure to act on a succession of technical reports which called for enforced spacing between vehicles in the tunnel.
This was only introduced after the 1998 fi re to reduce the risk of accidents and make it easier for occupants to escape a blaze.
The president of the French tunnel operator ATMB, Remy Chardon, was handed a two year suspended sentence and fined £10,000. He was criticised for failing to understand the risks presented by fires in the tunnel.
Michele Tropiano was the highest ranking official at the Italian end of the tunnel. He was fined £3,000 and received a two year suspended prison sentence.
The others found guilty of manslaughter charges were a mixture of French and Italian tunnel managers. They received fines of between £1,000 and £2,750 and suspended sentences.
Tunnel operating company ATMB of France and its subsidiary SGTMB were fi ned £70,000 and £35,000. Italian operator SITMB was fi ned £105,000.