France's worst cable car disaster yesterday continued an extraordinary run of catastrophes in the French Alps this year. In February, 12 people died in an avalanche near Chamonix. In March, 45 people were killed by a horrific inferno in the Mont Blanc road tunnel. It was the turn of the southern French Alps to mourn yesterday.
Most of the 20 victims of the cable car disaster at Saint- Etienne-en-Devoluy, near Gap, in the Hautes Alpes departement, were local people. They were commuting to work at an internationally renowned radio- astronomic observatory at 8,900ft on the rocky Pic de Bure, which overlooks the town. The cable car was a private transport link, owned by the observatory. It was barred to tourists and skiers.
Several of the dead came from the small town of Saint-Etienne itself; others came from nearby villages and towns. They included seven maintenance workers and cleaners, nine local builders, who were constructing an extension to the observatory, and four visiting telecoms workers from Marseilles.
The French, German and Spanish astronomers who staff the observatory - the French equivalent of Jodrell Bank in Cheshire - live for several days at a time on the mountain top. None was aboard the fallen car.
A 21st person, another builder, was originally thought to have been killed. It emerged later that he had stayed behind, to make a final trip for materials. He watched the others depart soon after 7am, on what should have been a 20-minute journey to the peak.
"I should have gone up with them, to have a bite with my mates," the man - who asked not to be named - told a local radio station last night. "But it just wasn't my day [to die], that's all."
The man said that he heard a wrenching sound. He looked up and saw the cable car crashing to the ground. Other witnesses said the car appeared to wobble slightly between the second and third pylons and then plunged into the rocky, snow-strewn meadows above the town. The large, plastic- encased gondola disintegrated on impact; trucks, gendarmerie and ambulance- service helicopters reached the scene rapidly but found no survivors.
The bodies were placed in a makeshift mortuary in a church beside the Super-Devoluy ski-station which, with the observatory, is the town's main source of employment.
"These people were all our friends, our relatives. They were the fathers of families, working people," said a distraught Jean-Marie Bernard, mayor of Saint-Etienne, which has a population of 545.
"We don't know how such a thing could have happened but we must find out. We have 20 stricken families. We have to give them an explanation."
Two investigations into the cause of the disaster - one public and one criminal - began immediately. If the criminal, or judicial, investigation finds that negligence was the cause of the disaster, charges of manslaughter may be brought against the officials at the observatory who are responsible for the cable link.
Initially, witnesses reported that they thought one of the cables holding the car had snapped. But the Prefect (senior national government official) for the Hautes-Alpes, Remi Caron, told a press conference in the stricken town yesterday that it seemed the car had unhooked itself from the cables for reasons that were still unclear.
Other officials said later that the car had broken free from two of its three cables and had brought the other down.
The accident happened only 500m from the starting point but the car had already reached 80m above the ground, roughly the height of a 15-storey building.
Charles Simiand, deputy head of the French association of cable car operators, said the link to the Pic de Bure observatory was built in 1981 but was almost entirely renewed last year. So thorough was the overhaul that "it was like giving a man a new heart and lungs", he said. "In the entire world, we, in France, have the strictest safety rules for cable cars."
There are more than 100 similar "telepheriques" or cable cars in France, not including ski lifts. Mr Simiand said the lessons learnt from the Pic de Bur disaster would be applied to the other cable cars but he saw no reason to halt the operation of systems elsewhere.
The Pic de Bure observatory and radio-observatory is visited by astronomers from all over the world. It is prized because of the comparatively little cloud cover and dry atmosphere in the region, which allow clear observations of the sky and sharp reception of cosmic sounds.
The five, 15m radio telescopes are operated by Iram (Institut de Radio- astronomie Millimetrique), an organisation jointly run by the French national research centre and the Max Planck Gesselschaft from Germany.