France and Italy under fire after Mont Blanc verdict
The lack of a coherent transport policy to shift goods traffic from road to rail has been criticised following the French tribunal investigating the 1999 fire in the Mont Blanc road tunnel in which 39 people died.
The tribunal concluded that the “tragedy could have been avoided” and has imposed moderately severe penalties on a number of people responsible.
The person in charge of safety in the tunnel, Gerard Roncoli, was given a six-month prison sentence with a further two years suspended. The lorry driver whose truck caught fire was given a four-month suspended prison sentence, and the president of the tunnel management company was given a two-year suspended sentence.
The most controversial penalty was the six-month suspended sentence given to Michel Charlet, the mayor of Chamonix who not only had no influence in tunnel operations but had called for a reduction in lorry numbers in the years leading up to the tragedy. Charlet was considered guilty in his role as head of the Chamonix fire brigade, but since the verdict on 27 July he has received many messages of support. Both he and Roncoli are appealing against their punishments.
The families of the victims expressed general satisfaction with the individual penalties, but said they would like to have seen representatives from the French and Italian states on trial.
The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève said on 28 July: “Yesterday’s judgement is a serious slap for the big absentee in this trial, the state. The state’s remarkable inertia and incredible inability to see this coming by failing to put in place a true transport policy for the Alps has meant there was little alternative to sending heavy loads through the Mont Blanc tunnel. At the moment the judgement was being read out, lorries were backed up for several kilometres outside the tunnel as traffic set new records and increased the risk of more accidents.”
In July the Mont Blanc tunnel had extra weight of traffic, following the closure of the Fréjus tunnel, another Alpine crossing route south of Mont Blanc, after a fire on 4 June which killed two Slovak lorry drivers. The tunnel re-opened on 4 August a month ahead of schedule.
This news story is taken from the September 2005 edition of T&E Bulletin.