Alpine cable car disaster kills 20

AFTER FALLING 250ft, the cable car smashed like an egg, scattering 20 bodies over the snow-dusted meadows. The only piece of the car still recognisable was the immense hook, which had - for reasons unknown - detached itself from two of its three cables soon after the mountain-top commuters swung into the sky.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine