Pierlucio Tinazzi (lost radio communication from Mont Blanc Tunnel fire victim; 1999)

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Pierlucio Tinazzi

Status: Lost

Pierlucio Tinazzi was an Italian security guard, who patrolled the Mont Blanc Tunnel via motorbike to ensure vehicles had a safe and consistent passage across both the Italian and French sides of the road tunnel. On 24th March, 1999, the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire occurred, with Tinazzi riding into the tunnel in an attempt to save lives on the French side. Ultimately he passed away while situated within a refuge station along with an unconscious lorry driver he had attempted to save. Tinazzi was lauded as a hero for his actions on that day. Prior to his death, Tinazzi had been in radio contact with the Italian side's control room for over an hour.

Background[edit | edit source]

Pierlucio Tinazzi was known as a major motorbike enthusiast and had a love for gardening. According to American Motorcyclist, Tinazzi was a member of the BMW Riders Association, and had been given the nickname "Spadino", Italian for "court-sword" in reference to his tall and thin appearance.[1] His job as a security guard at the Mont Blanc Tunnel therefore had a clear correlation with his passions, as he rode on a BMW K75 to patrol the Tunnel and ensure traffic flow remained consistent and any disruptions were swiftly dealt with.[2]

Mont Blanc Tunnel fire[edit | edit source]

On 24th March, 1999, a Volvo lorry entered the Mont Blanc Tunnel at the French entrance. Not long into its journey, there was growing concern among those passing from the opposite lane as white smoke began to billow out of the cabin. It eventually led to driver Gilbert Degrave stopping midway through the tunnel, with the intent to use a fire extinguisher to put out his burning lorry. Before he could do so however, the lorry suddenly erupted into flames, forcing Degrave to retreat to the Italian side.[3] A series of critical events, including the melting of flammable loads including the Volvo's margarine, as well as a decision made by a tunnel operator to pump fresh air into the tunnel, led to an inferno and dense smoke travelling all the way to the French exit, claiming the lives of 39 people.[4]

At some point, Tinazzi donned breathing equipment and rode into the tunnel. It is unknown whether Tinazzi was just regularly patrolling the tunnel before he realised the situation, or had suspected that the Volvo lorry was in trouble. Some of the last drivers to successfully reach the French exit believed he was trying to reach the burning lorry. The actions of Tinazzi on that day have been subject to confusion over the years. In 2003, journalist Mark Gradiner wrote an article that lauded Tinazzi for his heroic actions. According to the article, Tinazzi entered the tunnel multiple times, and rescued people that were still alive on the French side. At one point, he discovered an unconscious and overweight French lorry driver, and with Tinazzi himself struggling with the rising temperatures and lack of oxygen, dragged the driver into a fire refuge where both ultimately perished due to the intense heat and/or lack of oxygen.[5]

Tinazzi's Sacrifice[edit | edit source]

In actuality, as Gradiner found in the official French report concerning the disaster, the successful rescues were achieved by Patrick Devouassoux, a security guard driving a Renault Express minivan who had saved several people on the Italian side. There had simply been a mix up of the actions from both individuals, with Devouassoux downplaying his role in rescuing people so as not to reduce the impact from Tinazzi's sacrifice, who indeed had tried to save lives himself. What transpired was that Tinazzi had encountered Maurice Lebras, who was unconscious in his lorry. Tinazzi left his motorbike, dragged Lebras into a fire refuge, and closed the door with the intent to remain inside until the inferno was over. During the rescue attempt, Tinazzi had been in communication with Italian operators via a tunnel intercom, which some sources stating he communicated for over an hour.[6] According to Gardiner's article for The New York Times, the final message Tinazzi communicated with the control room was to inform them that he was inside the refuge with the unconscious Lebras.[7]

Ultimately, Tinazzi and Lebras passed away within the fire refuge. It is unknown whether they succumbed to the intense heat, the lack of oxygen caused by the smoke, or a combination of both. However, the fact that the refuge's fire door was rated to have given protection for only 2-4 hours according to various sources,[8] and that the fire raged on for over 50 hours, meant that neither individual stood any chance of survival within the refuge. All that remained once the fire was put out was the melted remnants of Tinazzi's BMW K75.[9] Nevertheless, while Tinazzi did not save anyone from the disaster, many still honour him for his sacrifice, with the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme awarding him a posthumous gold medal and Italy's Medaglia d'Oro al Valore Civile.[10][11] A commemorative plaque was also inserted at the Italian exit, honouring his heroic actions.[12] Additionally, Memorial Spadino is held on an annual basis where many bikers drive through the tunnel in a convoy in memory of the motorbike enthusiast.[13][14]

Availability[edit | edit source]

Despite over an hour of communication between Tinazzi and the Mont Blanc Tunnel's Italian control room, no audio is known to have been publicly released. According to Gradiner's article for Columbia Journalism Review, all radio traffic relating to the disaster was sealed away by the French courts due to the ongoing criminal and civil investigations. With the investigations over the disaster having long since concluded, and out of respect to Tinazzi and his relatives, the radio communication is likely to remain inaccessible to the public.

Images[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. American Motorcyclist detailing Tinazzi's passion for motorbikes and the Spandino nickname. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  2. Seechamonix detailing Tinazzi's security guard role at the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  3. Wired detailing the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  4. Mosen presentation regarding the disaster, noting the margarine and pumped air that contributed to the disaster. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  5. Mark Gradiner's original 2003 article on Motorcycle-USA, where he discussed Tinazzi's heroic actions but mixed up his with Patrick Devouassoux's. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  6. Mark Gradiner's 2019 Columbia Journalism Review article where he notes the errors in his original article but notes Tinazzi's real heroic actions on the day of the disaster, while also noting the intercom communication he had with the Italian control room. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  7. Mark Gradiner's article for The New York Times, noting the final radio contact Tinazzi had with the Italian control room. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  8. DW article claiming that the fire door for the refuge could only last two hours in a blaze. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  9. The Italian Junkyard providing photos and details of the disaster, including Tinazzi's melted bike. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  10. Revzilla noting Tinazzi was awarded a gold medal by the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  11. Presidenza Della Repubblica stating that Tinazzi was awarded the Medaglia d'Oro al Valore Civile on 2nd June, 2000. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  12. Mototribu providing an image of the plaque. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  13. Chamonix discussing Memorial Spadino. Retrieved 27 Oct '21
  14. Official Facebook page for Memorial Spadino. Retrieved 27 Oct '21