23 June 2017, text and photos: Fabian Weidmann
If you walk up to the Verbier Sports Centre today, all you’ll see is a pile of rubble and ashes. That’s because the sports centre caught fire shortly after noon on 9 June 2017. It was open at the time, but fortunately, nobody was injured. Sadly, there isn’t much of the centre itself left. It basically burned to the ground. One of the halls destroyed held an artificial ice rink, an indoor pool, a gymnasium and a restaurant. An adjoining addition to the centre was under construction and ended up partially damaged. The cause of the blaze is still unknown. The police are investigating.
Over 100 firefighters and dozens of teams from the region rushed to help the mountain commune in Valais. They worked tirelessly until late at night to get the fire under control. Any help was welcome and appreciated: one fire-fighting crew came all the way from Lausanne, almost an hour and a half away. Verbier’s Communal President, Eloi Rossier, arrived at the scene roughly 30 minutes after the fire broke out. “First of all, I was extremely relieved that nobody got hurt,” the politician says. He is grateful to the neighbouring communes for their solidarity and support in fighting the blaze.
Only a few days after the blaze, a committee consisting of the police, fire brigade, specialized clean-up and construction companies and the communal government, who owned the centre, set out to deal with the damage. The first item on the agenda was to clear away the debris to make the site safe to enter again. Not an easy task: something could collapse at any moment. The situation is aggravated by the fact that a tank filled with ammonia – used to cool the artificial ice rink – has to be carefully drained and the area has to be decontaminated. “Our top priority is to ensure the safety of the people working at the site and the people living near it,” says Rossier. The next most important aspect is to complete the clean-up as quickly as possible: “We'll see whether we can re-open the second, essentially undamaged outdoor pool this summer.”
Helvetia, as the primary insurer of the sports centre, also plays a crucial role. Claims experts are trying to quantify the damage to the building and its inventory and share their expertise with all the stakeholders. “The work has to be well coordinated when you have this many people involved,” says Jérôme Bernard, Helvetia claims expert for French-speaking Switzerland. “You can only pull together and rebuild the sports centre as soon as possible if everything is meticulously planned,” adds his co-worker Thierry Courtine, an expert for builder’s risk insurance.
The case’s complexity is also illustrated by the sum insured, which runs into millions of Swiss francs. “Personally, I’ve never seen damage of this magnitude,” says Bernard.