OPERATORS AT the Italian end of the Mont Blanc tunnel directly contributed to the deaths of 40 people in the 1999 fire by failing to follow agreed smoke extraction procedures, according to a report released this month.
A study carried out for the tunnel operator by UK consultant WS Atkins and fire expert Dr Bill Bradbury concluded that the decision of operators at one end to pump air towards rather than away from the blaze, engulfed motorists in smoke.
The fire broke out in a lorry near the 11.6km long tunnel's mid-point on 24 March 1999.
During the fire, operators at the Italian end of the tunnel abandoned emergency procedures and reversed extractor fans to pump air in, hoping to make it easier for those trapped to breathe.
French operators extracted smoke from their end of the tunnel. As a result, smoke engulfed motorists on the French side, causing most of fatalities within 15 minutes of the fire start.
Bradbury and WS Atkins based conclusions on computer simulations. These suggest that had procedures been followed correctly, emergency services would have been able to reach motorists before they suffocated.
'Of all the scenarios tested, that which was applied on 24 March 1999 was shown to be the most unfavourable for the tunnel users, as it prevented all rescue attempts by the French emergency services, ' said tunnel operator ATMB.