Tue, Nov 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Chirac and Raffarin visit site of gangway tragedy

AP , ST. NAZAIRE, FRANCE

French President Jacques Chirac, left, is flanked by Alstom chairman Patrick Kron, center, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, second from right, and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, right, during his visit to the accident site on Sunday in St. Nazaire.

PHOTO: AFP

This blue-collar town on the rough Atlantic coast has built its existence around a bustling shipyard where luxury cruise ships and military vessels are brought to life.

But St. Nazaire's 68,000 residents descended into mourning on Sunday, a day after 15 people fell to their deaths while visiting the nearly completed Queen Mary 2, the world's largest and costliest ocean liner that is set to sail in January.

Up to 32 people were injured, six seriously, when a metal gangway linking the dock and the hulking ship suddenly collapsed, sending people plunging at least 15m to a concrete deck below as the vessel sat in a dry dock.

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited the victims' bodies at a temporary mortuary at St. Nazaire's shipyard. Chirac said he had come to extend "compassion, solidarity and sadness in the name of the French people."

"It's an incomprehensible tragedy," he said.

Hundreds of sobbing visitors, both family members and local residents, poured into the parking lots at the shipyard to share in the sadness, offer flowers or write in a book of condolences. Flags flew at half-mast over police stations and St. Nazaire's city hall.

Most of the victims were relatives or friends of shipyard workers and cleaning crew workers on the ship. Two friends who died, Charlene Rio and Celine Duchesne, both 20, had just landed temporary jobs on the Queen Mary 2.

"This was their first and their last day of work," said a friend, Eve Denie, 22, crying as she watched Chirac's procession pass by. "And they didn't ever even set foot on the boat."

This gritty town of postwar buildings is France's biggest commercial ship manufacturer, and has been churning out military ships and ocean liners for decades. Here, in 1960, President Charles de Gaulle inaugurated the 315m France as "bigger, safer, stronger and faster than any other of its kind."

Some 10,000 full-time and contract employees work at the shipyard, officials said.

The town's fortunes have traditionally ridden the highs and lows of the maritime industry. With many cruise operators hurting these days, the Queen Mary 2 was a source of pride at the sprawling 108-hectare shipyard and in the town.

"This ship should have been our national pride," said Fabrice Ponchaux, 32, who lost his mother and aunt in the incident. His father was still in hospital.

"Pride is second now" to grief, he said.

About 48 people -- all wearing construction helmets to protect against injury -- were crowded onto the gangway when the structure collapsed.

It had been used several times the night before without incident, said Alstom spokesman Philippe Bouquet-Nadaud.

A few people survived the fall and described plummeting to the pavement below.

"At the bottom, everyone was screaming, and blood was everywhere," said Jessica Boissier, 21, who went on French TV with swollen eyelids and bruises on her face.

Officials at ship builder Alstom Marine Chantiers de l'Atlantique, a unit of ailing French engineering giant Alstom, said they wouldn't speculate about the causes of the incident.

"Our priority will be to shed light on this tragedy, to understand," said Patrick Kron, chief executive of Alstom, who visited the site with Chirac.

One distraught woman sobbed repeatedly, "Why didn't they put in a net?"

The accident was a blow to Alstom, which is heavily in debt and awaiting EU clearance on a multibillion euro bailout package from the government. Company officials insisted the ship would be delivered as scheduled, by Dec. 25.

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