Côte-d’Or: “We know no one will get out alive”… 40 years ago, a bus accident killed 46 children near Beaune

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40 years ago today, 46 children lost their lives in the worst road accident in France. At the beginning of this tragedy, an accumulation and a deadly fire. Back to the dark day.

It is the deadliest road accident in France. On August 1, 1982, a pileup on the freeway, heading south, killed 53 people, including 46 children, most of them on their way to their summer camps.

Along the “Autoroute du soleil”, which connects the south-east of Paris to Lyon, then to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, a small path descends to 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.

Deadly pileup

On the night between Saturday 31 July and 1 August, in the middle of the summer transition, two buses leaving Crépy-en-Valois in the Oise, north-east of Paris, carried 107 underprivileged children, most of whom were to spend their first holiday of a lifetime in a colony of Savoy in the French Alps.

Around. 01.40 they reach a “funnel” in the town of Merceuil, not far from Beaune: from three lanes we go to two. The driver of the first coach 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, but what could only have been a story about wrinkled sheets turns into a drama. Because a 2CV crashes into the French bus and is crushed by the other bus carrying the children. 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,” admits one of the first journalists on the scene, AFP photographer Eric Feferberg. From “the charred wreckage, the firefighters took out remains that no longer had anything human,” he recalls. A few kilometers away, Marie-Thérèse Meurgey, then deputy mayor of the city of Beaune, received the bodies at the funeral home. Or rather “what was left”, she told AFP. “They put them in little bags and then in coffins”.

“I had a black hole”

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.” Unfortunately, the family’s mother learns a little later that Bruno, Frédéric and Florence died in the accident. 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.” Since this tragedy, France has taken measures, thus banning the road transport of children, especially on the days of major departures.

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