66 Mont Blanc tunnel victims still not found

ALMOST THREE weeks after the catastrophic fire in the Mont Blanc road tunnel, the number of people who died remains unclear and only 10 bodies have been formally identified.

Firemen and gendarmes who have examined the molten wreckage of the 30 vehicles trapped in the inferno put the death toll, provisionally, at 40. However, 66 people remain unaccounted for - reported missing by their families and believed to have been planning to drive through the tunnel on March 24, when the fire started in a lorry.

French officials say it is possible the toll may rise steeply; and it is equally possible that a definitive death toll may never be established. The fire was so intense (more than 1,000C at its height) and lasted so long (two days) that some vehicles were molten to a quarter of their original size and many of the human remains found were no more than ashes.

An interim report by French investigators on the responsibility for the disaster was presented yesterday to the Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot. According to leaks in the French press, the report places some of the blame on malfunctions on the Italian side of the tunnel. Italian officials had earlier blamed technical failures and incompetence on the French side.

Overall, however, the report is said to be severely critical of the management and safety provisions of the tunnel as a whole.

It criticises the "insufficient and obsolete" system for the extraction of fumes, which allowed the original fire in a Belgian lorry to develop to a point where it could not be controlled. It also attacks the sealed "safe havens" excavated at intervals along the tunnel walls four years ago, which were capable of sustaining life for only two hours.

The report is also said to criticise the lack of co-operation between the tunnel management and local fire services. More specifically, it says the smoke-detection system on the Italian side of the tunnel failed to work.

As a result, vehicles were allowed to enter the tunnel at the Italian end for a couple of minutes after the alarm had already been raised on the French side.

The cause, and the ferocity, of the initial fire in the Belgian truck carrying flour and margarine remain a mystery. The lorry was a brand-new Volvo and similar unexplained fires have occurred in other trucks in the same series.

A French police investigator has travelled to Volvo headquarters in Gothenburg to seek more information.

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