Thursday, March 31, 2011

Searching for Spadino

This is the FIM's special gold medal. There are many years in which no one does anything worthy of being awarded this medal. In 1999, it was awarded, posthumously, to Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi for the rescue of  a dozen people during the Mont Blanc tunnel fire.

Helpless and open-mouthed, we watched the video clips of the tsunami coming ashore in Japan. Then, we realized that the real disaster was probably not the wave, but the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power facility. The explosion, the toxic fumes, and the heroic attempt by salaried employees to repair the damage and save the lives of total strangers... It all served to remind me of the rescue of a dozen people by motorcyclist Pier Lucio Tinazzi during the 1999 Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. It’s a story I’ve told before, so I apologize if what I now write rings bells with some readers. But since it describes the bravest act ever performed on a motorcycle, I think it can hold up to a few tellings.

This story began on March 24, 1999, at the French portal of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, which connects the highway systems of France and Italy.

It was midweek, approaching midday, at a time of year with medium traffic volumes. The tunnel is one of the world’s longest and highest. It represents an extraordinary engineering achievement, but this was an ordinary morning in every way.

A tractor-trailer rig from Belgium stopped to pay the toll. Nothing about the driver or his rig, a Volvo FH12, attracted the attendant’s attention. Its cargo was ordinary stuff: 9 tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour. The truck was cleared; it entered the tunnel and, somehow, caught fire. Witnesses saw white smoke coming out of the underside of the tractor unit, flowing underneath the trailer, and swirling up to the ceiling of the tunnel in the draft behind the truck.

The driver stopped, almost exactly in the middle of the tunnel. He climbed down out of the cab into dense white smoke. As he reached for the fire extinguisher under his seat, flames erupted from under the truck and he jumped back empty-handed.

At least 10 passenger vehicles and 18 other trucks had entered the tunnel after the big Volvo. A few witnesses passed the burning truck without stopping. Quickly, the intensity of the fire made driving past it impossible. Another few cars managed to U-turn and drive back to the French entrance. The heavy trucks couldn’t turn, nor could they reverse back past the first abandoned vehicles.

Any attempt to create a forensic reconstruction is hampered by the fact that the fire reached hellish temperatures. Near the epicenter of the fire, the heat metamorphosed the solid rock of Mont Blanc. It was almost a week before the tunnel cooled enough for investigators to approach the scene. No one had ever seen anything like it.

The people best able to describe conditions in the fire would certainly be the drivers trapped behind the burning truck, in the smoke billowing back in the direction of France. Twenty-seven of these people died in their vehicles. Ten died attempting to escape down the tunnel on foot. Of the approximately 50 people initially trapped by the fire, about a dozen survived. All of them emerged from the French portal saying the same thing. “That guy on the motorcycle saved my life.”

The motorcyclist was Pier Lucio Tinazzi. He grew up in the Val d’Aosta. All anyone ever noticed was that he was always on his motorbike. He became a security guard whose job was to ride back and forth in the tunnel, keeping an eye on traffic and ensuring a steady, uneventful flow. When the truck caught fire, Tinazzi was out on the French side. While everyone else was fleeing the tunnel, he hopped on his BMW K75 and rode into the black smoke looking for people.

The French ski resort of Chamonix is only five minutes away from the French portal. Within minutes, two trucks from the local fire department had responded. Then, the fire melted the wiring for the tunnel’s lights, plunging it into total darkness. The fire trucks were too big to maneuver in the helter-skelter of abandoned vehicles, and they were soon abandoned, too. The smoke was so thick, firemen could barely see each other’s flashlights a yard away. Before they could look for survivors, they found themselves in a desperate fight for their own survival. The crews retreated into two niches—small rooms inset into the wall of the tunnel. For five hours, they prayed that the fire doors would hold and listened as a river of burning fuel ran down the tunnel roadbed, bursting tires and igniting fuel tanks in its path. A second crew that reached them via a ventilation duct rescued the trapped firemen. Fourteen of them needed medical treatment. Their commanding officer died in hospital.

Into the Inferno

The first people Tinazzi found were well back from the fire. He showed them where the fresh-air vents were located, along the base of the tunnel walls.

How did Tinazzi find stalled vehicles? By bumping into them? Among the dead, Tinazzi found someone still alive. Helping him onto the back of his motorcycle, he rode a ghastly slalom back to the French portal.
Of all the rescue workers who entered the tunnel after the fire had begun, only Pier Lucio Tinazzi went back in. He rode in and out—a seven-mile round trip. Rode in, and out. In and out. In and out, carrying passengers each time. He was in radio contact with the Italian side for nearly an hour.

On his fifth entry, Pier Lucio came upon Maurice Lebras, a French truck driver who was alive but unconscious. He couldn’t wrestle the trucker onto his motorcycle, but refused to abandon him. In his last communication with the control room, he said he’d dragged the man into a small room off the main tunnel, called “niche #20.”

Niche #20 had a “four-hour” fire door. The fire burned for 50 hours. A few yards away in the tunnel, Pier Lucio’s BMW melted right into the roadbed.

The Banality of Heroism

The Federation International de Motocyclisme is based in the town of Mies, Switzerland. I grew up two miles away from their offices. On a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc from there. Once or at most twice a year, the FIM strikes a gold medal, which is awarded to motorcyclists of special distinction; some years, no one in our entire sport does anything worthy of it. In 1999, the FIM gold medal was posthumously awarded to Pier Lucio Tinazzi. The Italian government awarded him their highest honor for civilian bravery as well.

Tinazzi’s childhood nickname was “Spadino,” which is an Italian word for a type of slender sword. They called him that because he was such a skinny kid. A year after the fire, Italian riders organized a plaque commemorating his act, and placed it at the tunnel mouth on the Italian side. There’s an annual ride-out to the monument that attracts hundreds of bikers from across Italy.

I followed the tunnel fire story in the newspapers as it came out, read the FIM medal citation a few months later, and noted the turnout at the “Spadino” ride-out on the first anniversary of the fire. But the more I thought about it—and, on and off, I thought about it for years—the more I realized I had one unanswered question about Spadino: Who was he?

October, 2003

Finally, I rode up into the Italian Alps, toward the town of Aosta. I went to look up his friends and co-workers, hang around local bike shops, and talk to riders. I guess I went to figure out, as much as possible, what Tinazzi did that morning in the tunnel. But more important, I wanted to know if the people closest to him had any sense that he was capable of such bravery. He was dead, but I still hoped to find him there, somewhere.

Ducati loaned me a Multistrada from their press fleet. I needed an “any roads” kind of bike, since I didn’t know where my journey would lead. That’s what I was doing on the Multistrada: I was searching for Spadino.

My first lead was one of Tinazzi’s friends and co-workers named Mauro Branche. Mauro worked in the control room at the Tunnel. He wasn’t on duty during the fire, though I could tell he’d heard plenty from the guys who were. The catch was, he’d heard it, but he wasn’t going to repeat it, it was more than his job was worth.

Branche described Pier Lucio as a quiet guy whose principal hobby outside work was tending his garden. The locals all remembered Spadino as a kid who’d always loved motorcycles.

Pier Lucio married a woman from Puglia, down in southern Italy. Although he loved her, she never adapted to life in the mountains, and one day without warning, she up and left him. He begged her to come back, but she never did. “The last couple of years weren’t very good for him,” Branche told me “But there was another woman, Eva, who was Spadino’s best friend.”

Eva was easy to find and willing to talk. A month or two before the fire, one of Eva’s friends visited from Paris. Her name was Elizabeta, and she and Pier Lucio hit it off. She said she was going to move to the valley. Pier Lucio said he was going to build them a house.
This was the site of Spadino's garden
 I asked Eva if she had any pictures of Spadino, and all she had was one tiny snapshot and a photo cut from the newspaper. While I rode back down the valley to my hotel, I meditated on a guy who could go through life making so small an impression that his best friend would barely even have a photo of him. It reinforced the response I got when I toured the motorcycle shops in Val d’Aosta. Guys told me, “Yeah, we used to see him in here all the time,” but no one could remember what he rode.

Family Matters

As a family, the Tinazzis had bad, bad luck: Spadino’s dad died in a traffic accident in his early 40s; his mother Franca had a debilitating stroke in her 50s; his sister Daniela was married to an Italian state policeman who died of cancer in his 40s. Reporters plagued Spadino’s mom and sister after the fire, and neither is listed in the telephone directory.

A local Carabinieri—also a motorcyclist—bent the rules to give me enough information to find Daniela, the sister. When I did, she listened while I told her what I was there for. “I really should ask my mother,” she said, already shaking her head. But then she added, “Come in for coffee, anyway.”

We made small talk for a few minutes while the water boiled. “He lived for motorcycles,” she told me, adding that he’d been offered a job in the control room but refused it so he could keep riding. Her voice trailed off as she added, “My husband loved them, too…” As I closed my notebook, she asked, “Would you like to see the medal?”

Did I find Spadino? Yeah, and it turns out he was a guy who—except for a handful of people—really didn’t enter anyone’s mind until he died. But what does it matter? How we choose our heroes says more about us than them.

Half the time, we flatter ourselves by choosing heroes who have something in common with us—motorcycling, for example. Then we tell ourselves that we must share other traits, too—the devil-may-care talent of a Rossi, or more rare, the courage of a Tinazzi.
Michele Troppiano probably has a pretty good idea what Spadino did that day in the tunnel, but he's not talking about 'the incident'.
 The other half of the time, we choose to believe almost the opposite—that our heroes live their entire lives on some higher plane. That’s convenient too, since if we’re ever called upon, we have a ready-made excuse: Me, hero? Oh no, I’m far too ordinary. Pier Lucio Tinazzi’s life was completely ordinary before he rode into that living hell, and that makes his action all the more extraordinary.

Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi (27 December 1962 - 24 March 1999)


  1. It is amazing what Pier Lucio Tinazzi was able to do. Simply unbelievable the choice he made, truly a Hero.

  2. Well done, Mark. As always, you bring a bit of where you've been, what you've heard, and more importantly, to me anyway, what you felt, as you researched your story. I like to think there's a Spadino in every community, at least I hope so.

    Steve D
    Fair Oaks, CA

  3. What a remarkable story! This is what humanity should look like! Long live Spadino!

  4. Godspeed, Spadino.

  5. Great write up, Thank You. Because I'm suspicous of the internet I looked up the name, and came across this article
    I wondered how he'd not succumbed to the smoke, and this fills that little bit in.

    San Francisco, CA

  6. I am sure he is now in Paradise...on a BMW K75

  7. I am very late to this, but glad to have found it. A wonderfully thoughtful write-up. Thank you.

  8. While I rode back down the valley to my hotel, I meditated on a guy who could go through life making so small an impression that his best friend would barely even have a photo of him. EJEAS V6 Pro Intercom