Friday, March 26, 1999 Published at 18:20 GMT
Tunnel inferno 'warning ignored'
Firefighters from three countries battled the blaze
Rescue services in France have accused the company that runs the Mont Blanc road tunnel of ignoring warnings about inadequate safety precautions in the tunnel.
Rescuers said the tunnel turned into an inferno, melting the asphalt and causing tyres to explode and part of the concrete casing of the tunnel to collapse.
The French authorities said the fire trapped around 40 vehicles in dense, poisonous smoke and temperatures of up to 1,000C.
The fire service said it warned the Mont Blanc Tunnel Company last year about how difficult it would be to carry out a major rescue operation.
The company denies receiving any request to amend safety procedures and says it has not seen the document referred to by the fire service.
Rescuers said the tunnel, linking France and Italy, turned into an inferno, melting the asphalt and causing tyres to explode and part of the concrete casing of the tunnel to collapse.
Emergency teams from Italy, France and Switzerland brought the flames under control on Friday after struggling for more than 30 hours.
The tunnel will remain closed for several weeks.
An Italian tunnel employee, Pierlucio Tinazzi, 33, also died in the blaze. He saved 10 people, making repeated trips into the tunnel on his motorcycle, before succumbing to the fire.
Some 24 people were injured on the French side of the tunnel, including firefighters and tunnel company employees, There were 10 further casualties on the Italian side.
French Transportation Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has ordered an investigation into why security equipment and procedures failed to prevent the disaster.
Fire officials said Friday that all except two or three of the victims were found not in the tunnel's safety bunkers, but at the wheels of their cars - indicating they did not have time to escape before being overcome by the smoke and fumes.
The state attorney at Bonneville in the Haute-Savoie district of the French Alps has opened a manslaughter inquiry in order to establish the causes and responsibility for the blaze.
The route was used by some 766,000 heavy goods vehicles in 1998.
The tunnel fire is the second disaster to hit the French Chamonix region in recent weeks, after avalanches swept through the Alps.