Some time ago I posted this story in a motorcycle forum that I frequent. I'm not totally sure where this account originated from as I found it second hand on another forum. Someone replied to me and told me it was originally via some dude named Marc Glasgow who has since passed away. Anyway I wanted to make sure I kept it around, so here it is on my site. There are some additional links at the end of the story.
This is the story of the world's bravest biker hero that you've almost assuredly never heard of.
The Mont Blanc tunnel ( http://www.atmb.net/atmb_hp.php?lang=en ) runs for 7-1/4 miles under the highest mountains in Europe, passing under the Alps to connect France and Italy's highway systems. Opened in 1965, it currently handles about 1.7 million vehicles a year, including cars, trucks, and motorcycles. On an average day it sees 4,778 vehicles, including 3131 cars & motorcycles, 1602 trucks and 44 buses. It's the shortest route between northern and south-eastern Europe...
On March 24th, 1999, a truck loaded with butter and flour caught fire just past the half-way mark, about 3-3/4 miles into the tunnel (750 meters into the "Italian" section). The blaze reached 1830 degrees Fahrenheit and burned for over two days. Of the 50 people trapped in the tunnel when the blaze started, only 12 survived. All 12 of them were saved by an Italian motorcyclist...
This is the story of Pierlucio Tinazzi.
Pierlucio was a quiet, unassuming guy living a pretty boring life. Loved to garden & to ride. He didn't have a large contingent of friends. After his mother had a stroke and couldn't run her little restaurant where he had worked any more, he had scored a "security" job at the Italian facility for the Mont Blanc tunnel -- basically riding back and forth through the tunnel on his motorcycle to keep traffic flowing, dispatching tow-trucks and providing motorist assistance as needed. For this remote area of northern Italy, this was a pretty good paying job, but Pierlucio had turned down a promotion to work the control booth at the main Italian office because he preferred to ride over sitting in the office...
Pierlucio may have been like someone you know. Just another guy living his life in relative obscurity, nothing special going on. His wife had just up and left him a few years earlier and he had been in the dumps for a couple years. When the husband of a co-worker at the Italian facility broke his leg motorcycling, he started giving the coworker rides to the hospital after work every day (she didn't have a driver's license), and the three of them became firm friends, with the husband and him riding together once the leg finished mending. That was pretty much his inner circle of friends. Kinda sad...
Wednesday, the 24th of March, 1999...
At 10:42 AM a Belgium truck (Volvo FH12 cab towing a refrigerated trailer) was passed through the French toll booth. Nothing special, carrying nine tons of margarine and twelve tons of flour. As the driver went into the tunnel, he made his way along. After a couple miles, he realized something was wrong as cars coming in the opposite direction kept flashing their headlights at him; a glance in his mirrors showed white smoke coming out from under his cab. Normally this was no big deal, as there had been 16 other truck fires in the tunnel over the last 35 years, always extinguished on the spot by the drivers. Today wasn't going to be that day.
At 10:53 AM the truck driver pulled over around the mid-point and climbed down in a cloud of dense white smoke. As he reached under his seat for his fire extinguisher (there were also extinguishers on the walls of the tunnel every few hundred feet), flames erupted from under the truck and he jumped back empty-handed. At this point, the smoke turned black...
At 10:55 AM, the tunnel employees triggered the fire alarm and stopped any further traffic from entering. At this point the tunnel was populated by at least 10 cars/vans and 18 trucks that had entered from the French side. A few vehicles from the Italian side passed the volvo without stopping. Some of the cars from the French side managed to turn around in the narrow 2-lane tunnel, to retreat back to France, but negotiating the road in the dense smoke that had rapidly filled the tunnel made negotiating traffic pretty much impossible. The other trucks didn't have the space to turn around, and reversing out wasn't an option. Most people rolled up their windows and sat tight, expecting the problem to be resolved shortly... after all, nothing serious had ever happened here before.
Within minutes, two fire trucks from the French town of Chamonix responded. The fire melted the wiring and plunged the tunnel into darkness; in the smoke and with the abandoned, wrecked vehicles blocking their path, the large fire-trucks were unable to proceed. The fire crews instead abandoned their vehicles and took refuge in two of the emergency fire cubicles (fire-door sealed small rooms set into the walls every 500 meters or so). As they huddled behind the fire doors, they could hear the burning fuel roll down the road surface, causing tires to pop and gas tanks to explode. They were rescued five hours later by a third fire crew that responded and reached them via a ventilation duct; of the the 15 firefighters that had been trapped, 14 were in serious condition and one (their commanding officer) died in the hospital.
Pierlucio had cleared the tunnel to the French side about 10 minutes earlier, had been taking a break, and was getting ready to make a run back through when the fire alarms went off. He had a two-way comm system in his helmet that kept him in contact with the Italian tunnel office. As soon as the word came, he grabbed breathing equipment and drove his BMW K75 back into the tunnel. As he came across people trying to get out, he stopped and told them to drop to their knees, stick against the wall (where the fresh air ducts fed up) and keep moving, stopping only to breath at the ducts. He rode on into the hell that was the tunnel fire, through the smoke.
Most of the truckers close to the fire suffocated or were poisoned by the gases within minutes. Pierlucio peered among the dead and found the occasional surviver. He'd put them on the back of the bike and slalom back out the French side as fast as possible, bringing out victim after victim, then going back for the next one. On Pierlucio's fifth trip into the tunnel, he came across Maurice Lebras, a French truck driver who was unconscious but still alive. Too big and unwieldy to get onto the back of the bike unconscious, Pierlucio refused to abandon him. Instead he wrestled Maurice into fire niche 20 and closed the door.
The original fire doors were rated to survive for two hours. Some had been upgraded in the 34 years since the tunnel was built to survive for four hours, but niche 20 wasn't one of them. Not that it mattered, the fire would burn for over fifty hours and it would be over five days before the tunnel cooled sufficiently for anyone to go back in. Pierlucio's BMW melted right into the pavement a few yards from niche 20.
This fire raged out of control for over two days. The fire was so hot that the rock that forms the interior of the mountain was permanently changed in chemical form. To say it was hellish would be a gross understatement.
27 people died in their vehicles. 10 died trying to escape on foot. Of the initial 50 people trapped by the fire, only 1 dozen survived. Every one of the dozen said exactly the same thing: "That guy on the motorcycle saved my life."
It took two years to repair the damages fully and upgrade the tunnel's facilities. It reopened to car traffic on the 9th of March, 2002. These days the tunnel employs a permanent staff of 65 firefighters (about 20 are on duty at any instant).
So, this Friday, the 7th anniversary of Pierlucio Tinazzi's incredible heroism and tragic death, all bikers around the world are asked to carry a flower in remembrance if they ride that day... To remember the bravest biker hero you probably have never heard of before.