On 1 August 1982, a pile-up on the A6, near Beaune (Côte d’Or), killed 53 people, including 46 children, most of them on their way to their summer camps. Forty years later, this accident remains the deadliest in France.
Along the “Highway of the Sun” a small path descends towards a memorial plaque on which the names and ages of the 53 dead are listed, including seven from the same family. 10 years, 8, 7… The youngest was 5 years.
Babies and smiling faces had appeared on the front pages of the newspapers, the front page of the Journal du Dimanche crossed out with an “Atroce” in black capital letters.
On the night between Saturday 31 July and 1 August, in the middle of the summer transition, two buses leaving Crépy-en-Valois (Oise) transported 107 underprivileged children, most of whom were to spend the first holidays of their lives. in a colony of Savoy.
Around. 01.40 they reach the “funnel” to kilometer point 313, in the town of Merceuil, not far from Beaune: from three lanes we go to two.
The driver of the first bus is tired. The previous night he had traveled over 700 km and slept only 3-4 hours in between.
When a German bus brakes in front of him, he reacts belatedly. It’s collision. The shock occurs at 16 km/h. However, what could have been just a story about wrinkled sheets turns into a drama.
Because a 2CV crashes into the French bus and gets crushed by the other bus with the rest of the kids. Then another car hits it all. Tanks explode, gasoline ignites.
– “It is too late” –
In the first bus, everyone can be evacuated, but in the second, the vast majority of children will die.
“They were piled up at the back of the bus because it was the only possible exit. With the shock, the front door had been blocked,” Philippe Rouillard, one of the first firefighters on the scene, told AFP.
“When we arrive it’s completely engulfed in flames. We know no one is going to get out alive. It’s too late”.
Firefighters can only extinguish the tangle of sheet metal. Then “we see the horror, piles of bodies…”, he recalls, before being stopped by choked tears.
“I had nightmares about it for years, years,” admits one of the first journalists on the scene, AFP photographer Eric Feferberg.
In the middle of the two cars, the damaged 2CV had been “completely crushed and was only 2 feet long. Three skulls came out of it”.
From “the burned scrap metal, the firefighters took out remains that no longer had anything human,” he recalls.
A few km away, Marie-Thérèse Meurgey, then assistant to the city of Beaune, received the bodies at the funeral home. Or rather “what was left”, she told AFP.
“They put them in small bags and then in coffins. Fortunately, the general secretary of the town hall put flowers on each of them”.
In the room where the remains were laid out, families came to see their children. “It was terrible. One mother passed out. We didn’t know what to say, what to do… The parents were like automatons, zombies”.
In Crépy-en-Valois, Marie-Andrée Martin remembers this state of fear well. On Sunday morning, she hears talk on the radio about a “serious accident”. But the good news falls: Sylvie, his eldest by 15 years, is a survivor. “So I figured my other three kids were too.”
But Bruno, Frédéric and Florence did not survive. They were 12, 11 and 9 years old.
“I had a black hole. I was in denial. At that time there was no psychological cell. It was very complicated,” she admits.
“We were alone,” confirms Philippe Rouillard. The day after the accident, the professional firefighter returns to the barracks as if nothing had happened. “We close the curtain”.
He never participated in the annual ceremonies at the Merceuil Stele. Retired, he lives 200m away but avoids the place for his walks. “I’m not going near it.”