Two dreams were destroyed at 16.44 on 25 July last year. One dream, the world knows all about – the Concorde. Yet the world has never known, or cared much, about the other, more modest, dream.
The Concorde – the elegant, supersonic, accident-free symbol of Anglo-French co-operation and jet-set travel – crashed on take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, killing all 109 people on board. The Air France Concorde crashed on to a little hotel – the Hôtelissimo – killing four members of its staff.
The owner of the Hôtelissimo, who was seriously burned that day, has now written a moving, gentle book, called Putain de Crash – which translates as "bloody crash". Despite the title, the book is not so much about the crash as about the hotel and the small, racially disparate "family" of hotel employees that was ripped apart on that fatal afternoon.
The book describes how Michèle Fricheteau, 47, with no previous experience of running hotels, had bought a failing, crumbling, cheap hotel, at the end of an airport runway, at the junction of two dual carriageways, surrounded by a jumble of cornfields and small factories. In just three years, she had turned it into a kind of Gallic version of the Crossroads motel, a thriving family business with a modestly priced but sought-after restaurant.
In some media accounts of the Concorde crash, the Hôtelissimo became, variously, the "annexe" to a motel; "un hotel minable" (a fleapit); and the "Hotel Issimô", part of a (non-existent) Japanese hotel chain. It was as if the Concorde had not only crushed the hotel but also erased its identity.
"I wrote this book for the first anniversary of the crash, so that the real Hôtelissimo, all that we had achieved, everything that we had tried to do, all the heartaches and the fun we had together, would not be forgotten," Ms Fricheteau said yesterday.
"I did not want us to be just a couple of inaccurate paragraphs in an old newspaper cutting. This book is a bunch of flowers to mark the end of a great idea. Not the Concorde, because everyone knows about that. The idea that a small, cheap hotel (it cost around £18 a night) could be, not just a place to sleep where the staff barely spoke to you, but a place that people would enjoy going to," she said.
The bunch of flowers, Ms Fricheteau said, is "first of all" for the four women from the Hôtelissimo – two chambermaids and two Polish hotel students – who died in the crash. "It is also for those who survived but whose life was blown apart that day and who have still not recovered."
The Hôtelissimo cannot be rebuilt. The site remains polluted and is still being examined by crash investigators. Although her book is not a bitter or angry one, Ms Fricheteau points out that she is still wrangling with Air France about the level of her compensation. The eight other employees of the hotel, most of whom remain out of work, have been offered nothing by the state airline except the difference between their hotel pay and their unemployment benefit.
The book tells of her pre-crash wrangles with the banks; her problems with dishonest staff; her brushes with travel agents and tour firms; her adventures with a client who did not want to report his stolen car to the police because he was travelling with a woman who was not his wife.
Despite nearly going under on a couple of occasions, Ms Fricheteau – a gravel-voiced, chain-smoking, local Socialist councillor of Jewish origin – kept one "simple, small idea" in mind. "I thought that even a cheap hotel could be made different from all the other cheap hotels by offering plenty of the things that don't cost very much, such as smiles, and a few kind words, and attention to detail, and knowing the clients' names," she said yesterday.
As she explains in the book, the Hôtelissimo would offer services – such as theatre and airline or taxi booking and an airport shuttle – which are normally associated with large city hotels. It would provide cold meals after restaurant hours for guests arriving late, and the receptionist would greet even first-time customers by name.
"Ninety per cent of two star hotels belong to big chains and offer identical services," she writes. "Headquarters fixes the level of service and the watchwords are always 'cut costs'. They are usually run by a husband and wife team, both badly paid, who work all hours but offer the minimum service.
"My idea was to return to the levels of service in small hotels which you used to get in small inns in the countryside but apply that to a cheap hotel on the edge of an airport," she said yesterday. "People on package holidays have the right to a decent welcome too."
By the summer of last year, Ms Fricheteau had bought the hotel buildings with a bank loan, found a settled team of employees, who respected her approach, and had a bulging register of advance bookings.
Yet all was destroyed in a moment when one of the Concordes which were a twice-daily sight low over the hotel burst a tyre, punctured a petrol tank, failed to take off properly, and crashed tail-first on to the Hotelissimô.
At the time, Ms Fricheteau was in the reception area. She escaped with serious burns on her arms after helping to rescue an English tour guide, Alice Brooking, from a blazing upstairs room. Fortunately, most of the other employees were absent or managed to escape.
However, four young women employees were preparing beds in the residential wing for the imminent arrival of a youth orchestra from Essex. Parts of the Concorde fell directly on to that part of the hotel, killing the two Polish students, Eva Lipinska and Paulina Sypko, and the chambermaids Kenza Rachid and Devranee Chundunsing.
When her compensation claims are settled, Ms Fricheteau plans to move to New Caledonia in the French Pacific and open another hotel. Several ex-employees have promised to emigrate with her to wherever the hotel is.
Presumably this time she will choose a suitable site away from airport runways and flight paths?
"No," she said yesterday. "I don't care about that. I have no fear of planes. Accidents can happen anywhere. All I want is a small hotel, where we can try the same experiment again, in a quiet place at the other end of the world. It will be called the Hôtelissimo."
"Putain de Crash" by Michèle Fricheteau. Editions BBK, Paris (FF89)Reuse content