The first reports said the accident occurred after a British truck carrying methanol had stopped because one of its axles had caught fire, releasing a cloud of dense black smoke. The smoke caused the following tanker to veer across the central reservation. The British truck had pulled on to the emergency lane.
The local authorities said flames had engulfed the accident scene, making rescue work hazardous. 'It is difficult to rescue people from blazing cars,' said Danielle Cordier, the spokeswoman for the emergency services in the Charente- Maritime department where the accident happened.
One of the first fire-fighters to arrive on the scene told a French radio station: 'All the vehicles were on fire. Then there was a series of explosions . . . it's a catastrophe.'
Fire services had to rush in special equipment and chemicals for extinguishing petroleum fires. The local authorities, putting in motion a 'red plan' to deal with emergencies, also set up a mobile hospital at Mirambeau, the nearest village, to treat burns. The accident occurred at about 8pm local time.
According to early reports, the tanker, which was travelling towards Bordeaux, crossed the central reservation and smashed into 37 cars and three other trucks driving towards Paris. The accident occurred about 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Bordeaux.
The first of the injured were taken to two hospitals in the region and five were reported by Jonzac district officials to be in a serious condition.
The A10 motorway was closed in both directions and the emergency services, backed by an ambulance helicopter, reported that they had trouble gaining access to the scene. Most of the injured were taken to hospital in the town of Saintes.
The accident occurred in conditions of poor visibility because of intermittent heavy rain and unusually heavy traffic conditions on the eve of the long Armistice Day holiday weekend.
The crash was the second serious road accident in France this year, following a crash in January in which 10 people died.
France's worst crash took place in 1982 when 53 people died, including 46 children, in Beaune in south-eastern France.Reuse content