After travelling through the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy, we have researched the history of the tunnel and learned about the disaster in 1999 in which about 40 people died.
A truck carrying 20 tonnes of margarine and flour caught fire and spread to other vehicles. The resulting toxic fumes and thick black smoke trapped dozens of people inside the tunnel. A lack of coordination between the two companies managing the tunnel (Italians managing the Italian side and French managing the French side) made the rescue effort even harder. The tunnel acted as a huge chimney, drawing oxygen from the south and funnelling the smoke through the tunnel at an alarming rate. The fire burned for over 50 hours and melted the vehicles which were caught at the centre. It was three years before the tunnel was re-opend.
Thankfully my mother was not aware of this history before we travelled through the tunnel! She was nervous enough as it was. But how could we not remember such a disaster?? It happened the day before Sophie had her first birthday, on the 24th March 1999. Surely the Australian media reported what was happening on the other side of the world? Maybe it just seemed so far away that it didn't sink in, and probably there were no Australian victims which minimised the media coverage. If you want to learn the sad facts of the event, an internet search will provide plenty of facts. But the horror is unimaginable.
Happily the safety mechanisms in place now are much improved since 1999. There is a separate escape/service tunnel, and new surveillance technology means the response to an emergency would be much quicker. After paying our toll of 32 euros we were made to wait for five minutes before we entered the tunnel, and our car radio was tuned to a special channel to receive any information or warnings. We were given a leaflet outlining closing times for tunnel safety inspections and emergency drills. All trucks must now stop at a special inspection point before entering the tunnel.
Despite the terrible history of the tunnel I felt quite safe driving through it, and even comfortable compared to the alternative, which is a winding mountain pass.