Inquiry into Queen Mary gangway deaths

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The Independent Online

The death toll from the gangway catastrophe beside the world's largest cruise ship, the Queen Mary 2, rose to 15 yesterday, amid questions about the presence of so many visitors in a working shipyard.

Almost all of those who died after a temporary gangway collapsed 60ft into a dry dock at Saint-Nazaire, France, including several children, were the family and friends of shipyard workers.

Two investigations, one judicial and one by the French government, will seek to discover whether the 30ft-long footbridge to the new Cunard Line flagship was badly constructed or whether too many people were allowed to cross at the same time.

Jacques Chirac, the President, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, visited Saint-Nazaire yesterday to comfort the 29 people injured in the accident and offer their condolences to the families of the dead. President Chirac said he hoped the inquiry would "rapidly establish responsibility" for the "incomprehensible tragedy."

Shipyard officials refused to comment on the causes of the disaster on Saturday afternoon but admitted that the gangway ­ one of several linking the ship to the dock-side ­ had not been built with public visits in mind.

They said that it was an industrial gangway of the kind used by shipyard workers: a narrow, metal strip, fenced on either side and supported by scaffolding.

For this reason, the bridge did not have a safety net, as is often the case with public footbridges in France. One shipyard worker said: "They should never have used a shipyard gangway for family visits. Workers don't go across all at the same time. Visitors do, assuming that it will hold their weight." The disaster will cast a shadow over the triumphant conclusion of the three years work on the linerat Saint-Nazaire and the planned commissioning and naming of the ship by the Queen in Southampton in January.

The vessel ­ the largest, most elaborate and costliest liner ever built ­ had successfully completed its second sea trials last week. The regional newspaperOuest France suggested yesterday that "legitimate pride" at the completion of such a beautiful ship, on time and within budget, had perhaps led the shipyard, Les Chantiers de L'Atlantique, to throw caution to the winds. Under the English headline "Bloody Mary", the newspaper said that the shipyard had been "too hasty" in opening the liner to visits by the family and friends of yard workers.

The footbridge was built by specialist contractors on Friday and had been used by hundreds of yard workers that afternoon and Saturday morning. Later that day, the gangway and the supporting scaffolding buckled while 44 people were crossing to, or from, the liner.

Some people fell 60ft to the concrete floor of the dry dock. Twelve people, including several children, died immediately. Three have since died from their injuries. Others, who managed to cling to the bridge as it collapsed, suffered serious or minor injuries. Jason Schmitt, a shipyard worker who was visiting the liner with his mother, escaped with bruises. His mother suffered back injuries.

"It was a miracle we survived," he said. "I could feel the bridge going and I shouted to everyone to hold on to the sides as best as they could."

Thousands of local people signed a book of condolences yesterday. Emmanuel Audino, 33, a shipyard worker wrote: "The Queen Mary 2 has not yet left the shipyard but it has already gone down in legend."