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Operator admits absence of fire drill system on Mont Blanc

As temperatures soared firefighters working from both the French and Italian sides of the tunnel were forced back by thick black smoke and intense heat.

NO ARRANGEMENTS were in place for regular fire drills on Mont Blanc road tunnel, the operator admitted this week.

Last week's inferno claimed 40 lives after a lorry caught fire deep in the 11.6km single bore, two lane tunnel between France and Italy. The blaze raged for 50 hours, reaching temperatures of up to 1,000degreesC before being brought under control.

Operator Autoroute et Tunnel du Mont Blanc chairman Remy Chardon said no full-scale drills had ever been carried out. He added that the only inspections in the last year were on smoke extractors on the Italian side and fire hydrants at the French end.

But Chardon rejected claims from the local Haut Savioe region fire department that ATMB had refused to allow a full-scale fire drill. 'We have neither refused nor authorised a drill,' he said on Monday.

Chardon added that ATMB was accountable to the national and regional authorities on both sides of the tunnel. He said none of these authorities had ordered a test. 'If we had a request we would act immediately,' he added.

Fire broke out close to the mid point of the tunnel just before midday last Wednesday. An engine fire ignited the tyres on a Belgian truck heading for Italy, setting light to its load of flour and margarine.

Within 10 minutes dozens of vehicles across a 300m section of the tunnel were ablaze. The truck's flour and margarine load is thought to have contributed to the intensity of the fire, which then spread to another truck carrying rubber.

As temperatures soared firefighters working from both the French and Italian sides of the tunnel were forced back by thick black smoke and intense heat. They were unable to control the blaze until Friday afternoon. Even when the flames were extinguished, thick smoke and heat stopped firefighters from moving into the damaged area until Saturday afternoon.

Most of the dead were on the French side, suffocated by toxic black smoke pushed towards them by natural air currents from the Italian end of the tunnel.

An investigation was immediately launched into the tragedy, headed by a local magistrate. This is not expected to conclude for several months.

But French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevevement voiced fears of a repeat tragedy. 'The investigation must be taken seriously so that, in future, measures can be taken in other tunnels where, it is true, similar things could happen,' he said.

ATMB chairman Chardon said that the intensity of the fire had surprised tunnel experts in France, despite being on a similar scale to the fire in the Channel Tunnel in November 1996.

He confirmed that a smoke extraction test was held on the Italian side in 1998 to assess the effectiveness of recent modifications to the ventilation system. Last year, he added, ATMB also tested fire hydrants in the French half of the tunnel.

Security at France's other 20 major road tunnels - those over 10km long - is expected to be stepped up in the wake of the fire. On Monday French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said he wanted a joint French/Italian tunnel safety policy.

Traffic has been diverted to the Frejus tunnel, south of Mont Blanc. This 12.9km tunnel is also a single bore carrying one lane of traffic in each direction. And there is concern about the 11km single bore extension to the A86 west of Paris. This tunnel will be just 2.5m high, allowing only cars to use it.

Jospin added that he had ordered officials at the Frejus tunnel to step up truck inspections to ensure that banned flammable loads are excluded. This move follows speculation that the Mont Blanc fire was made worse by highly flammable material in one of the trapped trucks.

(see pages 4 and 5)

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