Mon, Nov 17, 2003 - Page 1 News List

France mourns after accident on giant oceanliner kills 16


Flags flew at half-staff yesterday throughout this industrial port city that was mourning the deaths of 16 people killed when a crowded gangway leading to the docked luxury ship Queen Mary 2 suddenly collapsed.

The accident Saturday in western France at the world's largest and most expensive oceanliner initially claimed 13 lives, but three more people had died of their injuries by yesterday morning, officials at the local prefecture said.

About 30 others were injured, with some hospitalized in serious condition, rescue officials said.

The gangway was installed Friday for a weekend visit by construction workers and their families of the nearly complete oceanliner before its maiden voyage planned for January.

As dozens of people crowded onto the gangway, the structure collapsed, pulling down scaffolding holding it up at one end, sending people plunging 15m to the ground, and transformed the luxury liner into a horrifying scene of bodies entangled in wreckage.

"The passage gave way and we fell about 50 feet [15m]," said Jason Schmitt, a worker who escaped without injury. "I fell with a minimum of 30 people," he told France-2 television.

The cause of the collapse was not immediately known. An investigation was under way.

Local leaders had planned a series of celebrations late next month, many residents said. The accident raised doubt about whether such festivities would go on.

"Naval construction is a family that knows how to share its glories and its difficult moments," St. Nazaire Mayor Joel Batteux told regional L'Eclair Dimanche newspaper. "But it's never been as hard as this."

"We were preparing an important event, but now, it's out of the question to celebrate," he said.

The shipyard was to be closed today for a day of mourning.

Flags flew at half-mast over police stations and the concrete city hall in St. Nazaire, which lives off heavy industries such as ship and airplane construction.

The 21-story-tall oceanliner was dry-docked at an Atlantic coastal shipyard for finishing touches before its maiden voyage. Britain's Cunard Lines, which operates the vessel and is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp, said the voyage from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, would likely go ahead as planned.

"To the best of our knowledge, the ship will sail Jan. 12, as scheduled," said Julie Davis, a spokeswoman in Miami for Cunard.

Cunard Lines issued a statement offering "thoughts and prayers" for the victims and their families. It made no comment on the accident itself.

French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin were to visit the shipyard yesterday.

Philippe Bouquet-Nadeaud, the shipyard's head of human resources, said the gangway was installed Friday by a company specialized in scaffolding for boats.

The accident came just four days after the ship completed its second successful sea trial. The first was in September.

The Queen Mary 2 is the world's largest passenger ship at 342m long and 71m high -- as tall as a 21-story building.

It is also the most expensive, costing US$800 million to build.

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