Men in white and the bereaved move silently through this graveyard of supersonic aircraft

The Morning After
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As dawn broke over the N17 yesterday, the early-morning mist merged with the ghostly white smoke still rising from the pulverised wreckage of aircraft F-BTSC. More than 12 hours after the disaster, the wreck of the aeroplane - and the reputation of Concorde as a safe and lucky aircraft - had still not been extinguished.

As dawn broke over the N17 yesterday, the early-morning mist merged with the ghostly white smoke still rising from the pulverised wreckage of aircraft F-BTSC. More than 12 hours after the disaster, the wreck of the aeroplane - and the reputation of Concorde as a safe and lucky aircraft - had still not been extinguished.

Soon after 8am a convoy of a dozen, dull-cream, unmarked vans, driven by solemn, young men in white jumpsuits and face-masks drove through the police lines. In the back were the first of the bodies collected from the crash site: those which were relatively intact, identifiable and easy to move.

Other convoys of cream vans followed throughout the day.

All through the night and into yesterday the small army had grunted and scrabbled respectfully through the wreckage. Stooping, they picked through the rubble with their fingers, in rows, methodically. At irregular intervals four of them would take a stretcher and clamber over the bricks and scree - the remains of the Hotelissimo - with a body in a bag.

Nonetheless last night, 24 hours after the tragedy, dozens of bodies, and parts of bodies, still lay in the cornfield and car-park surrounding the shattered hotel where the plane fell, according to one eyewitness, "like a leaf in autumn".

Sixty two red traffic cones marked the places where bodies or parts of bodies lay, covered by white plastic bags.

The red cones stood in clusters, mainly at the southern end of the crash site, the direction in which the pilot, named yesterday as Christian Marty, 54, was trying to turn the aircraft, possibly to an attempted landing at Le Bourget airport; momentum had taken them there.

Another sad grouping appeared next to the remains of the Hotelissimo, while others were placed near the perimeter of the crash site. One was at the roadside, beneath a sign along the plane's last approach that read: "Toutes Directions", illustrated, unfortunately, with an arrow pointing to the ground.

The harrowing process of recovering the bodies from the field beside a road junction called the Patte d'Oie (Goose's Foot) is a painstaking business, stretching into today and possibly tomorrow.

The French authorities want to be sure no mistakes are made and that they are restoring the right remains, and as much of each corpse as possible, to the grieving relatives.

By mid-morning the remains of 55 of the victims had been taken to a medical institute in Paris where the grim and difficult task of identification began.

According to rescuers, some bodies were burned out of all recognition; some shattered; others swollen grotesquely. Dental records, DNA tests and airline records will have to be used. Some of the passengers are thought, quite simply, to have disintegrated.

"C'est tragique," said farmer Jean-Paul Canto, shaking his head. He lives a few hundred metres from where the plane came down, and he witnessed its last moments. "It was going like this," he said, first flattening his hand, then banking, then sliding through the air and rolling.

Below Mr Canto, seen through his field glasses, the debris was identifiable in places. There was Concorde's trademark nosecone, almost intact; here was a part of a wing - or was it a piece of the tail? Beyond the Hotelissimo's charred interior was a large section of fuselage, turned upside-down like a broken barrel.

And on the western edge of the site were huge sections of engine, gnarled and black, the business end of the aircraft's mind-boggling thrust. They appeared to be upside-down but, without an identifiable wing section, it was impossible to tell.

Shortly before 1pm, a convoy of a dozen police vehicles and minibuses, their windows darkened and shutters drawn, filed slowly past the site, heading south down the N17. Was it relatives of the dead? The protective French police refused to say, citing laws of privacy.

But on the ground, it was hoped not. For even though the convoy did not stop, those on board would have seen enough to assess for themselves the terrible last moments of their doomed loved ones.

France has been deeply shaken by the disaster to Flight AF 4590. The French death-toll is relatively small but Concorde, 30 years on, is still a matter for national pride; an important symbol of French, and Anglo-French, technical prowess. The sheer grace of the machine appealed to the French sense of elegance. The tragedy that befell F-BTSC - one of the last Concordes to be built, in 1980 - has had an impact much greater than any "normal" air crash.

Yesterday morning several eye-witnesses revisited the site to tell their story; their small part in aviation history. Alexandre Debraezeu, 42, who was on a lorry-driving course at the Patte d'Oie junction on Tuesday afternoon, said: "I saw 100 people die before my eyes. It is a moment that I will never forget, especially the helplessness. We could do nothing. Nothing."

He said the aircraft was flying low, still on an even keel, trailing flames, when he first saw it emerge over the tree-tops. "Then it tried to turn and it was as if it just fell gently from the sky like a leaf in autumn, with its tail and one wing, pointing downwards."

The crash, in the north-eastern corner of the greater Paris conurbation, was just four miles from Goussainville, where the Soviet-built Tupolev-144, or "Concordski", crashed at the Le Bourget air show at on 3 June 1973 - the only previous disaster involving a supersonic aeroplane.

In Gonesse itself yesterday the people of the town of 25,000 did not know whether to react with horror or relief that they were spared something much worse.

The dreadful aftermath of the tragedy was pressed home when Elizabeth Senot of the Pontoise public prosecutor's office said "it would be cruel to let the families view the bodies". The scene was, she said, "very moving, emotional and frightening even for a person like me used to seeing such terrible things".

Grieving relatives of the victims were last night comforted by the French President, Jacques Chirac, in the Centre Culturel Jacques Brel on the outskirts of the town. Mr Chirac arrived with his wife by motorcade for the ecumenical service to hear music, bible readings and a message from the Pope.

As the mourners filed into the entrance of the grey and red-roofed building in the sunshine, they seemed to represent a cross-section of society, some wearing suits, some carrying luggage and some with children wearing sports shirts.

Once inside the hall the atmosphere was "very sober, very simple", said Father Stanislas Lalanne, spokesman for the Conference of Bishops of France. Many were clearly suffering from shock but they nevertheless displayed "great dignity" in their grief, Fr Lalanne said. He added that one of the most moving moments was at the end of the service when there was "a lengthy silence to think of those who have been lost".

Bernard Lagoutte, Secretary General of the Conference of Bishops of France, led the service with a message from the Pope, who said there was "deep sympathy and spiritual unity between all of us" and that the "Holy Father is praying for everyone in this situation". The Pope also called on "everyone to assist those affected".

There were readings in both French and German from the Old and New Testaments and from the Koran, and Catholic and Anglican priests, as well as a Rabbi and an Muslim cleric, were present. The congregation of more than 200 mourners listened to the strains of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

Fr Lalanne said Mr Chirac did not speak at the service. "He was there to attend. But he comforted some of the victims inside the entrance of the centre".

After the hour-long service the President and his wife left without speaking to journalists. The relatives and the dignitaries made their slower journeys away in a fleet of buses, three of which went on a final pilgrimage to the site where their loved ones had been lost.

Comments