In 2003, with what felt like an angel on my shoulder, I wrote a story that became a myth. It was a once-in-a-lifetime piece. An emblem for human courage in the face of adversity, and an inspiration for motorcyclists like me, that swept the world in its small way.
It would have been the story that led my obituary. But in recent weeks I have realized, with a creeping feeling of unease, that it was wrong.
It began on March 24, 1999 when a Volvo FH12 semi-truck from Belgium, carrying a cargo of nine tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour, stopped to pay the toll at the French portal of the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
The tunnel, opened with great fanfare in 1965, is seven miles long. It connects the highway systems of France and Italy, and cuts an hour off transport times between Italy’s industrial north and the rich markets beyond the Alps. It passes almost directly under Europe’s highest peak. When it was opened it was the world’s longest and deepest road tunnel. Over the next 35 years of uneventful service, those superlatives were taken for granted.
The Volvo trundled in, on its way to Italy. Within a minute or two, it caught fire. The driver stopped, about three miles from daylight in both directions, and with a mile of solid rock above him.
On that day, atmospheric conditions in the Alps created a fairly strong breeze in the tunnel. As the truck’s cargo burned, it produced dense, toxic smoke that billowed back towards France. A handful of cars U-turned and got back to the French portal, but the heavy trucks could neither turn, nor back up after visibility dropped to about three feet. Twenty-seven people were asphyxiated in cars and trucks. Ten tried to escape on foot, but it was too far to fresh air, and they couldn’t outrun the toxic fumes.
Fourteen firefighters on two trucks from the ski resort of Chamonix reached the French portal in minutes. They plunged into increasingly dense smoke and, after the fire melted the tunnel’s electrical wiring, total darkness. Before they even reached the burning truck, they found themselves in a desperate fight for their own survival.
They retreated into two fire refuges, small rooms with a dedicated air supply carved into the side of the tunnel every few hundred feet, and closed the fire doors. They listened as a river of incandescent margarine ignited fuel tanks and burst the tires of abandoned vehicles. They were eventually rescued via a ventilation duct. Their commanding officer died at a nearby hospital.
Pierlucio Tinazzi was employed as a security guard to patrol the tunnel by motorcycle to ensure a steady flow of traffic. Except for his uniform and motorcycle, he was entirely inconspicuous. Although he’d lived in the close-knit Val d’Aosta region since birth, all most people knew about him was that he loved motorcycles, and rode at every opportunity.
In the days after the fire, regional newspapers credited Tinazzi with rescuing ten people. Reporters described him making four trips into the tunnel, ferrying people out on his motorcycle. On the fifth trip, he came across a French truck driver named Maurice Lebras, who was alive but unconscious, according to messages Tinazzi communicated via a tunnel intercom. Tinazzi dragged him into ‘Niche No. 20’ – another refuge – and closed the fire door, which guaranteed safety from a fire for four hours. The fire burned for 50 hours. Outside, in the tunnel, Tinazzi’s motorcycle melted into the roadbed.
It took a week for the tunnel to cool enough to recover their bodies, and those of the 36 others who had perished in the tunnel. By then tales of Tinazzi’s bravery had already spread far and wide. An honor guard filled the tiny cemetery where he was buried. The Italian government presented his family with the Medaglia d’oro al valor civile, a heavy, beautiful medal that is one of the country’s highest honors for civilian bravery.
Reporters wrote background stories about Tinazzi, but had little to go on. In school, his classmates called him ‘Spadino’ — the Italian word for ‘rapier’ — because he’d been such a skinny kid. He had been devastated when his wife, who hated the alpine winters, left him and returned to her native Puglia in the far south.
He was a mild-mannered introvert who loved gardening; occasionally he distributed a bumper crop of vegetables to other workers at the tunnel. Not your archetypal biker. But the one thing everyone agreed on was that Spadino loved motorcycles. In fact, he’d been offered a job in the tunnel control room, but had declined because he preferred to ride.
The Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme – the worldwide governing body for motorcycle sport – posthumously awarded him a specially cast solid gold medal for motorcycle merit. A year after the fire, thousands of bikers gathered at the Italian portal to commemorate him.
When the reports of Tinazzi’s daring and tragic motorcycle rescue first reached North America, I pitched the biggest US motorcycle magazine, Cycle World, a feature on him, but I never heard back from the editor. Four years later, in 2003, I was living in France. And my curiosity finally got the better of me. I traveled to Val d’Aosta on my own dime to write a story that I eventually came to call “Searching for Spadino.”
I spent a week seeking out his family, friends, and coworkers and imploring them to talk to me. Through them, I felt I got to know a subject who was so self-effacing that his closest friends could barely even find a snapshot of him.
I set out to write a biographical sketch of an unlikely hero. Cycle Canada was the first magazine to print it, in 2003. The US magazine Rider ran an abridged version the next year. But interest in the story really took off in April 2006 when it appeared in the UK monthly Bike. That’s the one magazine every other motorcycle editor reads, and so several more ran it in translation.
I thought about the tunnel story on and off, usually around the anniversary of the fire. But I never really dug back into it. Then on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, this year, I was commissioned to write a feature for The New York Times, looking back on the fire as the world’s most closely examined road disaster. (It changed tunnel engineering and safety standards around the world, and is still top of mind for civil engineers working on huge tunnel infrastructure projects like the recently opened SR 99 tunnel in Seattle.)
As part of my Times research, I spoke to Jean-Marc Berthier, the engineer who reopened the Mont Blanc Tunnel after extensive renovations and safety improvements. Berthier talked to me about the first “Memorial Spadino” biker gathering. After a long chat over Skype on technical topics, I asked whether he could confirm Tinazzi’s actions.
Jean-Marc, who until that point in our conversation had easily recalled facts and anecdotes, told me he couldn’t remember the details. When I pressed him, he fell silent for a moment before saying, “My advice is, don’t become preoccupied with some accounting of lives saved versus lives lost.”
Had he really forgotten, I wondered, or was there something he didn’t want to tell me? For the first time, I began to worry. I contacted Paolo Sormani, an experienced Italian motorcycle writer, and asked him to help with that “accounting.” Paolo wrote back, rather brusquely I thought, saying that he had no interest in reopening the Spadino story.
I started looking into it online. The first thing I realized was that the story I wrote in 2003 had gone viral before going viral was really a thing. The regional newspapers that reported on him in 1999 didn’t have online editions; my story, posted a few years later, was the first on the web. If I Googled “Pierlucio Tinazzi” with my language preference set to English, the top results linked to my story or follow-up pieces by others.
An Italian or French-language search for the hero’s name, yielded posts that were a lot more circumspect when it came to describing Tinazzi’s actions that day. The next thing I realized was that information denied to me in 2003 had come out at trial in France in 2005. In those countries, post-trial stories acknowledged that the legend was exaggerated.
I fell asleep that night increasingly certain that I had gotten “Searching for Spadino” wrong, but lacking real evidence.
The next morning, digging deeper, I uncovered a 97-page, minute-by-minute account of the fire, produced by Le Service Régional de Police Judiciaire de Lyon. The police deposed hundreds of witnesses and experts, studied all the security logs and video, and analyzed thousands of photos and other pieces of forensic evidence. It was immediately obvious, as I began to read, that Spadino couldn’t have saved anyone.
Finding any mistake in a published story is deflating. But I’d taken pride in this story for so long. I had seen so much to relate to in Spadino who was, like me, a biker and (at that point in my life) very lonely. It felt like someone I had been married to for years had been cheating on me all along.
The report revealed that Tinazzi was outside the tunnel, at the French portal, when the Belgian truck entered; I’d been right about that much. He entered before there was any formal alert. Spadino might have seen something, or heard something from one of the drivers exiting the tunnel, that made him suspect that a truck was in trouble. Or, he might simply have chosen that moment to make a routine return trip to Italy. Nothing in the official record suggests his motivation.
The last people to safely escape the tunnel in the direction of France told the investigators they thought he was trying to catch up to the burning truck. But he never reached it; he stopped when the smoke became too thick. He found Maurice Lebras unconscious, and dragged him into Niche No. 20.
The told and retold story – that, before finding Lebras, Spadino had exited to safety and returned over and over, rescuing 10 other people – had been publicly debunked by the French judicial police in 2005.
I had drawn on the contemporaneous newspaper accounts in Val d’Aosta and Chamonix for my story. In hindsight I should have wondered why none of them included photos, names, or quotes from the people he’d saved. I should have questioned how Tinazzi managed to operate in the French zone, when fully kitted firemen could not.
I suppose a part of me always worried the story was too good to be true. I went to the tunnel control center, and to the local ‘Carabinieri’ post, where I spoke to managers and cops who must have known that the accounts published in 1999 were exaggerated. But all the witnesses and officials were under gag orders, and records – including security video and recordings of radio traffic – were sealed due to ongoing criminal and civil investigations. At the time, considering that four years had already gone by since the fire, I concluded that French and Italian bureaucrats were deliberately dragging the investigation out, to keep the records sealed, so that neither side would ever have to accept blame.
I was not alone in making Spadino a hero. He had been presented with medals and buried with honors long before I arrived in Val d’Aosta. In death, he’d become an unofficial patron saint of Italian bikers. They’d already made several annual pilgrimages to the tunnel in his honor.
In all the years since, no reader ever emailed, or phoned, or tweeted a skeptical thought. Of course my readers are almost all English-speaking motorcyclists who would prefer to believe my original version, anyway. I suppose I sympathize with any editor who chose to downplay a correction, after a devastated region had drawn inspiration from so unlikely a hero. In the end, we all believe in the things that help us get through our days. But I still wondered how so many journalists, beginning with the local papers, and ending with myself, got the facts so wrong.
I looked again at the citation for the FIM medal. It reads in part:
The motorcyclist Pierlucio Tinazzi entered the smoke filled tunnel from the Italian side a number of times and successfully brought out on his motorcycle many motorists whose vehicles had been trapped inside the tunnel. Unfortunately, he failed to return from his final visit into the tunnel and himself became a victim of the tragic inferno.
I got caught on the phrase “entered the smoke-filled tunnel from the Italian side,” because I knew Tinazzi wasn’t on the Italian side. He was Italian, but as it happened, he entered the tunnel from the French side.
Remember the wind in the tunnel, pushing the smoke and heat from the fire towards France? No one could survive downwind, but a small Italian crew was able to get quite close to the fire from the other side. They saved several people, ferrying them out to the Italian portal.
The Italians were assisted by a French motorcycle security guard named Patrick Devouassoux, who happened to be on the Italian side when the fire broke out. So there was a “motorcycle guy” who died in the fire, and a “motorcycle guy” who rescued several people; they just weren’t the same person.
Devouassoux was not riding a motorcycle that day. He was, unromantically, driving a Renault Express minivan. And he soft-pedaled his actions in the days after the fire, because he didn’t want to take anything away from Tinazzi’s sacrifice. (I could not immediately reach him for this story. He appeared to be in his 50s at the time of the fire, so it’s not certain he’s still alive.)
Antoine Chandellier is a French journalist who has reported on the Haute Savoie region for decades. He tells me, “That legend had been woven by the Italian media before anyone knew exactly what had really happened. The Italian company [that administered that end of the tunnel] also wanted an Italian hero, because they knew that as legal responsibility for the disaster was assigned, they were in opposition to the French company.”
In a subsequent email exchange, Jean-Marc Berthier pointed out that Spadino was not trained or equipped to fight a fire. He could have turned back, but he didn’t. It was certainly selfless, but if the initial newspaper reports had been accurate, I doubt that the FIM and Italian government would have presented their medals. I would never have traveled to Val d’Aosta in search of the hero’s backstory.
Paolo Sormani, the motorcycle writer who had initially been reticent, seemed to have a change of heart a few days later, when he wrote back in Italian-accented English to explain. “In Italy,” he says, “We have a disaster or a deadly happening involving several people every week. In most of these, human negligence is somehow involved. For each and every one, a non-profit association or event is established. The following week, something new and bad is on again and the wheel restarts its circle. So you can imagine why newspapers and magazines are not interested in revising [the] account.”
I suppose I would sympathize with a local reporter who – on deadline, in the chaos of those first days – conflated events from both ends of the tunnel. I wonder if he ever realized his mistake, or tried to correct the record. Maybe like Italian motorcycle magazines, the newspapers quietly started telling the truth about him, without ever admitting the initial error.
Over the years, there have been a few occasions when complete strangers thanked me for writing, “Searching for Spadino.” That always made my day. Of course now, I’m embarrassed that it took me 14 years to correct the record. For what it’s worth, I’m glad it fell to others to break the truth to bikers in Val d’Aosta.
As I write this, I’ve spent the last week going back over 76 pages of handwritten notes I made on that trip. The interviews I conducted with his sister and a few close friends were heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. It gives me comfort that my portrait of Spadino was accurate, even if my account of what he did during the fire was not.
He was just a quiet man who had tried to do the right thing in the face of an inferno. And maybe that is enough.
TOP IMAGE: Fabled motorcyclist Pierlucio Tinazzi. Photo courtesy of Mark Gardiner.