Backmarker: Searching for Spadino

March 21, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Pierlucio ‘Spadino’ Tinazzi (27 December 1962 – 24 March 1999).

This Sunday, motorcyclists from all over Italy will ride north into the alps. They’ll take the A5 ‘Autostrada’ past Val d’Aosta, braving the cold and snow. They’ll climb to the point, 4531 feet above sea level, where the road disappears under the highest mountain in Europe. There, they’ll stop, and gather, and remember the 14th anniversary of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire and the last ride of motorcyclist Pierlucio ‘Spadino’ Tinazzi.

This year will also mark the tenth anniversary of the time I rode up to that tunnel mouth, searching for an understanding of what motivated Spadino. I’ve told his story many times since, but since it describes the bravest act ever performed on a motorcycle, I think it can hold up to being retold.

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.

Thousands of feet under Mont Blanc  the middle of the tunnel is always about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thousands of feet under Mont Blanc, the middle of the tunnel is always about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

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 Pierlucio 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

Of course  I interviewed the tunnel administrators even though I knew they wouldnt cooperate because liability for the fire is still a point of contention. At one point  Michele Troppiano  seen here in the tunnel control room  phoned down to some lackey to ask a point of clarification. He referred to the tunnel fire only as  the incident.
Of course, I interviewed the tunnel administrators even though I knew they wouldn’t cooperate because liability for the fire is still a point of contention. At one point, Michele Troppiano (seen here in the tunnel control room) phoned down to some lackey to ask a point of clarification. He referred to the tunnel fire only as, ‘the incident’.

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 Pierlucio 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, Pierlucio 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, Pierlucio’s BMW melted right into the roadbed.

This is the FIMs 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.
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.

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 Pierlucio 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?

Late 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.

It was easy to find the cemetery. Everyone in town was slowly walking in the same direction. I just joined the flow.
It was easy to find the cemetery. Everyone in town was slowly walking in the same direction. I just joined the flow.

The ride from Bologna to Val d’Aosta was cold and wet. I was nearly hypothermic by the time I finally got to my hotel. I showered and got into dry clothes, and looked for the nearest restaurant. I pondered a strategy; I have good passive comprehension of Italian, but I can’t really claim to speak it. I do speak French, which was a help because that region of Italy has, at different times, actually been a part of France and the local dialect is definitely still tinged with it.

I had no leads, but I thought a good place to work backwards from would be Spadino’s grave. You may imagine that I was surprised when my waitress told me, “We’re all going to the cemetery tomorrow.” In response to my quizzical look she added, “Don’t you know? It’s the feast of all the saints and all the dead.”

The next morning, I didn’t have to ask directions to the town’s biggest cemetery, I merely had to walk along in a gathering flow of people. The waitress wasn’t kidding; in Italy, everyone goes to cemetery on All Saints Day.

No one at Val d’Aosta’s cemetery knew where Spadino was buried. That would’ve been too easy. After a couple of hours, I decided to find a cappuccino and formulate plan B. As I was leaving the graveyard, I walked past two uniformed cops, and noticed that one of them had a tiny motorcycle pin on his lapel. After a few steps, I turned around and caught up to them. I explained who I was, in a mixture of English, French, and Italian straight from my tourist’s dictionary.

The cops, of course, knew of Pierlucio (his name also appears as two words, Pier Lucio, in some accounts.) They couldn’t recall where he was buried, but one of them gave me the name of one of Tinazzi’s friends and co-workers, a guy named Mauro Branche. He knew that Mauro’s family owned a little hotel in a town further up towards the tunnel.

Mauro Branche described Pierlucio as a quiet guy whose principal hobby outside work was tending his garden. The locals all remembered Spadino as a kid whod always loved motorcycles.
Mauro Branche described Pierlucio 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.

That was my first lead. The hotel was actually closed when I got there, but Mauro was expected, and I was invited in. Some kid was watching a live telecast of a 250 Grand Prix race in the empty bar. One of Mauro’s relatives made me espresso.

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. What he could tell me was that there was someone else I should speak to.

Pierlucio 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 Pierlucio hit it off. She said she was going to move to the valley. Pierlucio said he was going to build them a house.

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.”

This was where he planted his garden.
This was where he planted his garden.

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 Marquez, or more rare, the courage of a Tinazzi.

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.” Pierlucio Tinazzi’s life was completely ordinary before he rode into that living hell, and that makes his action all the more extraordinary.

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