Sixteen accused of manslaughter in Mont Blanc inferno

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A sprawling courtroom drama which will apportion blame for the 39 deaths in the Mont Blanc tunnel fire in March 1999, began yesterday in a converted theatre in the Alps.

A sprawling courtroom drama which will apportion blame for the 39 deaths in the Mont Blanc tunnel fire in March 1999, began yesterday in a converted theatre in the Alps.

Sixteen defendants, ranging from a Belgian lorry driver, to the Volvo truck company and the French and Italian tunnel operating companies, are accused of "manslaughter through clumsiness, imprudence, carelessness or negligence".

More than 200 civil litigants, mostly relatives of victims from nine countries, 60 lawyers and 100 witnesses, including a French former prime minister, are expected to attend the trial in the next three months. Since no local courtroom could accommodate so many people, the trial has been switched to a converted municipal theatre in the town of Belleville. The president of the three judges hearing the trial, Renaud Le Breton de Vannoise, said he would make "no concessions in searching for the truth".

The fire began in a Volvo refrigerator lorry, registered in Belgium, in the middle of the eight-mile tunnel under western Europe's highest mountain. The blaze spread to the load of flour and margarine then to 35 other vehicles trapped on the south-bound carriageway. Powerful fans, mistakenly pumping in air from the Italian end, turned the tunnel into a blast furnace, with temperatures reaching more than 1,000C.

The tunnel's lining and road-way, and the vehicles, melted. Little was found of most victims except for pieces of bone. The prosecution, and lawyers for the victims, say their case is that all the deaths could have been avoided easily. A relatively minor incident was turned into a catastrophe by the imprudence and incompetence of the separate, state-owned French and Italian tunnel-operating companies, they will say.

The Mont Blanc trial is regarded as an important test of the legal responsibility of senior public officials in France for deaths in their jurisdiction. A law passed in 2000 says officials should be convicted only if they have a direct and flagrant responsibility for an accident.

The three tunnel-operating companies and seven of their senior officials are accused of putting profits before safety and, in some cases, making crucial errors on the day of the fire. Volvo Trucks is accused of failing to correct a design fault in its lorries, the mayor of the nearby town of Chamonix, Michel Charlet, 59, is accused of failing to equip and train his fire brigade properly. There had been no fire drill in the tunnel for 26 years before the disaster.

The Belgian truck-driver, Gilbert Degrave, 62, is accused of failing to park his truck in an emergency lay-by in the tunnel, After trying to fight the fire with his cab fire extinguisher, he ran away, leaving a queue of other trucks and cars trapped on the Italy-bound carriageway.

The prosecution says the fire was caused by a lighted cigarette end sucked into the truck's air intake vent, something which had caused other Volvo goods vehicles to catch fire. M. Degrave did not spot the smoke and flames until he was flashed by vehicles heading in the other direction. He stopped his truck just past the halfway point of the tunnel. Several vehicles drew up behind, the drivers blinded by the smoke and flames.

The prosecution claims the catastrophe was made much worse by a crucial four-minute delay in responding by the tunnel officials at the French end. Vehicles were allowed to enter the tunnel and the warning lights within the mountain were not switched on. Many cars, instead of halting just inside the tunnel, drove all the way up to the queue behind the blazing truck. Their drivers and passengers were rapidly overcome by fumes then incinerated by the blaze as it jumped from one vehicle to another.

The Italians turned on high-powered fans, blowing air in the direction of the fire and the trapped vehicles. Co-ordination with the French officials might have warned the Italians that it was crucial to reverse the fans, and extract the smoke and fumes, rather than feed the inferno, the prosecution says.

An Italian rescue crew which reached the fire did not know how to operate their emergency truck and had, themselves, to be saved from the blaze. The firemen who came from the French end did not have enough breathing apparatus. One collapsed and died. Among the many witnesses due to appear is Edouard Balladur, who was prime minister of France from 1993 to 1995. He was the head of the French Mont Blanc tunnel company in the 1960s.