It Was the Story of My Career. Except It Wasn't True

The hero of the 1999 Mont Blanc Tunnel fire wasn't one after all
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 15, 2019 1:09 PM CDT
Updated Apr 21, 2019 11:01 AM CDT
It Was the Story of My Career. Except It Wasn't True
The Mont Blanc Tunnel's French entrance, seen in 2007.   (Wikimedia Commons/Christophe Jacquet)

The deaths were horrible ones: 39 people died on March 24, 1999, in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, with many asphyxiating. A semi-truck carrying more than 20 tons of flour and margarine entered from the French side, intending to traverse its way beneath Mont Blanc for seven miles to the tunnel's exit in Italy. Instead, the truck caught fire mid-way through and the resulting toxic fumes overtook the French portion of the tunnel. Four years later, Mark Gardiner wrote the article that he imagined would have "led my obituary." It told the story of Pierlucio Tinazzi, a security guard who lost his life in the tragedy but not before entering the tunnel four times and rescuing 10 people using his motorcycle. He never emerged from his 5th trip in. Except it wasn't true.

After Cycle Canada first ran the article, it was reprinted in other magazines over successive years, and the with the 20th anniversary approaching, the New York Times asked Gardiner to revisit the story. An interview with the engineer who oversaw the tunnel's renovations clammed up when asked about Tinazzi. "For the first time, I began to worry," writes Gardiner in the Columbia Journalism Review. Gardiner's story had relied in part on local newspaper reports; officials were under gag orders and records were sealed at the time. What he now discovered was a 97-page police report that had factored into a 2005 trial in France and made clear Tinazzi, who did indeed die in the tragedy, couldn't have saved anyone. "I should have questioned how Tinazzi managed to operate in the French zone, when fully kitted firemen could not," Gardiner writes. Read the full story, which digs into a potential mix-up with another hero from that day. (More Longform stories.)

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