Thursday 12 February 2009

A Tale of Two Tragedies (Part 2)

In the summer of 1903, workmen were busy applying finishing touches to the Notre Dame de la Consolation church, the permenant memorial to the victims of the Bazar de la Charité fire. Situated on the Rue Jean Goujon, a prestigious address between the Seine and the Champs Elysées, the classical and baroque elements would soon fit suitably into the elegant surroundings and provide an admirable commemoration of the tragedy. As the men were putting statues into place, polishing the marble and chiseling out biblical texts, little did they expect that the cruel hand of fate was about to strike again in the city.

It was Monday the 10th of August. Across the city in the working-class areas to the north, wooden Metro trains were thundering along a recently opened branch linking Barbès and Nation. The Metro system had only opened three years earlier, and this stretch of line had been freshly inaugerated at the beginning of the year. The initial curiosity value of this underground railway system had worn off, and the typical user, particularly in this part of the city, was the clerk or workman. It was now a system of transport like any other, but the speed it swept through the congested city made it a popular, constantly crowded one.

Throughout the day, drivers of one particular engine had noticed recurring problems. The motor was seemingly overheating, sending out sporadic sparks, flames and smoke. At the terminus at either end, repairs were made and the engine was sent on its way again. In the early evening, at Barbes station, the problems suddenly became worse and a small fire broke out. The electric current was cut, and the fire was quickly put out, but a decision was made to take the engine out of service and the passengers were asked to leave the train. The empty train continued on its way, but was forced to stop at another station as fire had broken out again. It was eventually decided that another train following behind should be taken out of service too and should be used to push the damaged train back to the Nation terminus. The passengers of the two trains were now thickly massed on the platforms, becoming increasingly concerned and annoyed about when they would finish their journey.

The two trains continued towards the terminus, but the problem had not been solved and small fires continued to break out. The drivers simply jumped down at each station, asked for an extinguisher then continued on towards Nation. When they arrived at Menilmontant though that the inevitable happened, and the fire really took hold. Being made of wood, the carriages were quick to burn, and the station was rapidly filled with smoke. Seven victims of the accident would later be found here.

The real centre of this tragedy though was one station further back, at Couronnes. It seems that the possible dangers were not taken seriously and traffic was allowed to continue. A train following along behind the two others had picked up the unhappy travellers and had now arrived at Couronnes station. It is estimated that 300 people were in these four carriages, and when they were asked to leave another train many became angry. Some refused to leave whilst others complained loudly and demanded a refund on their ticket. They seemed little aware of the fire raging along the track until the lights went out and smoke began billowing in from the tunnel.

Couronnes station today. The victims were found on the opposite platform.

It wasn’t until 4 o’clock the following morning that the full picture of horror was unveiled. The firemen and Metro workers imagined only material damage and a handful of victims at Menilmontant, but they had seemingly overlooked the train behind which had been forced to stop at Couronnes. Newspapers(1) reported later that the horrific find was all the more surprising because nobody enquired about missing friends or relatives despite the hordes of curious onlookers outside the stations. It was to be a full eight hours after the event that rescuers were finally able to enter the Couronnes station, and they were shocked to find 75 victims, desperate people who had tried to flee the smoke in the dark and ended up in a heap at the wrong end of the station.

Whilst the Bazar de la Charité catastrophe nearly put paid the nascent cinema industry, the Couronnes incident forced the city of Paris to question its new underground railway system. The system survived but major changes were made throughout the structure, notably ensuring that lights would not cut out in an emergency and that more than one exit should be available (there is still just a single exit at Couronnes).

There is no chapel or monument to the victims of this tragedy, just a brown and orange sign put up by the city in the 1980s. The victims were largely faceless and anonymous, with an estimated 95% being of working class origin. There were no tales of heroism among the victims reported, and only the bravery of the firemen was highlighted, men who had repeatedly risked asphyxiation throughout the night on hopeless searches for survivors.

The 1980s 'Histoire de Paris' sign outside the station.

The Bazar de la Charité incident had shocked and appalled the public, so much so that the generous public donations that followed enabled the construction of the Notre Dame de la Consolation church. It would be unfair to say that the inhabitants of Paris did not react to the Couronnes disaster, but perhaps this time the needs of the families of the victims were different. When money was collected following this catastrophe, no memorial was built, but the hard up families all received a generous sum, whilst the city of Paris looked after funeral expenses.

It is said(2) that the author and poet Louis Aragon was obsessed by the subject of accidents and by these two events in general. He was born the year of the Bazar de la Charité fire and was only 6 when the Couronnes accident occurred, events that must have left a deep scar at a delicate time. There were many links between the two events, with both notably involving fire and new technology. What differed however was the victims’ backgrounds, a factor that established how the public at large reacted to the event. The most important link between the two events though, and what surely affected Aragon the most was the arbitrary nature of accidents and the fact that they can strike anybody at anytime.

1. The Gaulois front page and some of the description of events was taken from a PDF produced by a family investigating their family tree. It seems that a relative of theirs was one of the unfortunate victims of the accident.

2. Marie-Christine MOURIER, "Aragon et l'accident, entre obsession et création".


Starman said...

Was there ever an investigation into what may have caused the fires in the first place?

Adam said...

The PDF I mentioned in the notes has a full and complete description of what happened, but in French. I'm not a very mechanical person, but it was the result of a basic design fault and a simple short circuit. What made it all worse was that the drivers and traffic just continued onwards regardless. I believe that the drivers were later investigated by the authorities, but I'm not sure if they were ever prosecuted.

CarolineLD said...

The difference between reaction to the two tragedies is fascinating. It's interesting that the financial response of Parisians seems to have been similar in both cases although the needs of the bereaved were so different.

Cergie said...

Intéressant et généralisable ce que tu racontes : ma tante par exemple était née en 1912 l'année du naufrage du Titanic. Un 14 février, jour de la St Valentin. Je viens d'apprendre que la ville de Chandler en Arizona a été fondée le 14.02.1912.
Que d'accidents tragiques à Paris dans le métro sans remonter si loin, ne serait-ce que l'attentat de la station St Michel, et des incidents dont on ne parle pas et les suicides qui sont de plus en plus nombreux et que je crois on n'appelle plus "incident voyageur" car tout le monde devine.
Et les personnes poussées sous les trains ? On pense à tout cela quand cela arrive, et puis heureusement on oublie. Si on devait penser à tout ce qui est arrivé et risque d'arriver, on resterait chez soi.
(Les incidents domestiques ne sont pas à négliger non plus)

PeterParis said...

And after all, fortunately we have the metro! ... and nowadays a metro without drivers - on line 14, obviously the best running of all the lines. However, soon you will see no personnel at all in the metro, maybe not the best for security?
Once more, thanks for your fantastic research! Always fascinating to read your posts! (... and also thanks for you comments and remark on my blog today. I made a correction.)

Nathalie H.D. said...

I didn't know about this disaster. A rather distressing account of poor crisis management. It justifies the careful set up and rehearsal of emergency procedures in any given circumstance, doesn't it?

A couple of my ancestors were present at the bazar de la charité tragedy. They were lucky to escape early and wrote about it to relatives. The letters were kept in the family and my dad wrote a book based on this exchange of correspondence, so there's a chapter about this tragedy in his book.

Thanks for the term wheatpasting. I like it because I reminded me of my grandmother in the sixties putting up a new wallpaper in her corridor and using a mix of flour and water as a glue for this purpose. Interesting, eh?

Squirrel said...

tragic story, and well written Adam! why is it that train operators get away with so much?

There was a period of time when we had in nyc what the press nicknamed 'cowboys' driving subway trains --esp on one particular line, drivers would go way too fast and not be able to stop at stations! it was most distressing to be a passenger back then-- going fast then slamming on the breaks--people would fall inside the cars-- I was on the trains constantly, and the train would overshoot my stop, I'd have to get off at the next stop and walk back or get a another train back. This went on for at least eight months and many injuries had to occur before the drivers were investigated.

new yorkers also hated leaving disabled trains -- even if there was a track fire. When I was a kid the trains were just crazy. It's much better now.

Squirrel said...

I like the photo of the metro, and the man walking through.

looking at your comments section to Peter's comment-- you have no drivers on line 14?

Adam said...

Nathalie - fascinating that you have this family connection to the Bazar de la Charité tragedy. Does this mean that you have (blue) aristocratic blood in the family? Is your dad's book easily found?

Squirrel - Yes, the line 14 has never had any drivers (or rather the drivers are in some control room somewhere). I believe that the Line 1 will phase out drivers soon too. In theory there's no chance of accidents as there are large glass panels on the platform that only open when the train arrives.

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