Friday, June 11, 2021

Disasters in Paris

It was the Easter period of 2018 that I ventured to the French capital for a hunt around the city looking for memorials to some of the major disasters that have struck Paris since the mid 1800s and incredibly they are more common than expected. I am going to start with a visit to a street near the River Seine called Rue Jean-Goujon. It is here that a church is around halfway up on the right hand side, the Notre-Dame-de-Consolation and this church itself is a memorial to what happened here. On 4th May 1897 a large warehouse containing a mock up medieval street known as the Bazar de la Charite was constructed with hundreds of people attending the event lasting several days. But a huge fire left 126 dead and over 200 injured, the entire site becoming a raging inferno that sent France into mourning. The outside of the church today (above) has very little evidence of something this big happening, but knowing the history of this place makes this place of worship as haunting as it gets.

Just around the corner is the Pont de l’Alma, a bridge going across the river Seine within sight of the Eiffel Tower. But it is not the bridge itself that has the attention of the world, it is the road underpass that runs directly below this that made this site infamous. On 31st August 1997 three people were killed when a Mercedes crashed into a pillar while being followed by paparazzi photographers, there was one survivor. The reason this crash became world headlines was the identity of its victims – Diana Princess of Wales, Dodi Fayed (son of Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed) and their driver Henri Paul. The sole survivor was bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones. Above this underpass is an unofficial memorial to Diana which was a replica of the flames coming out of the torch up the Statue of Liberty in New York. Now it is adorned with images of the Princess and has been since that day the worlds press descended on here. With conspiracies rife and talk of assassination, cover ups and murder there was one thing that was clear above all else – Diana and Dodi did not wear seat belts, their bodyguard did. The cause of the crash was later blamed on the driver being drunk and losing control in the car chase.

Moving on to the train station at Gare de Lyon, you have to go deep underground for this next memorial. It is between Platforms 1 and 2 that a yellow monument stretches the length of the platform almost, right in the centre surrounded by a chain barrier. On here are the 56 names of the people who were killed at this spot when an out of control inbound train slammed into another one that was waiting to depart. 60 others were injured, the blame being laid on the train crew for their operating of the brakes after an emergency cord was pulled earlier in the journey.

Back on a journey across Paris I head to another railway disaster site. This time it was at Couronnes station, where a fire here led to 84 deaths on a line that was not even a year old. On 10th August 1903 smoke was seen coming out of the engine of the front car of a train but it was decided to evacuate, clear the smoke and carry on the service. The fire soon returned and the train soon became an inferno, consuming the station with smoke and killing dozens. All that remains now is a small information board near the entrance to the station.

But it is not just fires and crashes that have struck Paris railways, two terrorist bombs at Saint Michel station in 1995 and Port Royal in 1996 left a combined total of 12 dead, memorial plaques honouring those who died. Another terrorist attack at a small restaurant, the Chez Jo Goldenberg, by the Abu Nidal Organisation left six dead and 22 injured when the attackers threw grenades into the dining area and opened fire with guns. The restaurant was no longer there when I visited but the building was still the same. Again it is hard to imagine things like this happening in such quiet streets. Although these days France has become renown for suffering terrorist attacks in more recent years and for the next incident I had to visit several locations.

On the night of 13th November 2015 a cell from the Islamic State terrorist group launched a wave of major attacks across the city in six different locations – The Stade de France, Bataclan theatre and four small cafĂ©’s packed with people. Suicide bombings, gunfire and hostage taking left 130 dead and over 400 injured. Of the 9 terrorists involved, only two got away alive. It was a long trek across the city to visit all of the memorials, the only one I missed was the stadium as it was too far away to do in one day. The largest of the monuments is in a park opposite the Bataclan where 90 died, all the names appearing on a block of stone surrounded by tributes. A further memorial in the Place de la Republique pays tribute to all six sites. It really was a terrible night for Paris, and one that continued with further attacks later on in Nice, Lyon and Marseille.

Finishing my tour of Paris, I had to board a train at the very busy Montparnasse, a major station that is probably the city’s version of Kings Cross or Waterloo. The structure has changed a lot but I knew that there was a famous photograph of this station, taken in 1895 when a train over-ran the platform and smashed through the walls. Continuing through the wall the engine and several carriages (still connected up) ended up in the street below, killing a pedestrian. Despite the amount of comedy posters that this photograph has been seen in, it is still a railway disaster and perhaps the sellers of such trivia need to remember that. To this date there is no memorial to this. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Capsizing of the European Gateway

On 19th December 1982 the Townsend Thoresen car ferry European Gateway was departing the port of Felixstowe outbound with 34 passengers and 36 crew on board and a cargo of vehicles. She had been built in 1975 as the European Express in Germany but renamed before the year was out. At 386 feet long she was over 4000 gross tons and could carry over 300 passengers and 400 cars on a typical journey (Photo right shows her in August 1979 - image by Wolfgang Fricke).

In the meantime the Speedlink Vanguard was inbound to the nearby port of Harwich. Launched in 1973, she was operated by Stena Cargo Line and was at this moment in time carrying 28 crew and a full cargo. Built in Sweden, she was 466 feet long and just over 3,500 gross tons and had the ability to carry around three dozen passengers. 

The two ships sailed closer towards each other in the dark until at 2250 hours the two vessels collided and the Speedlink Vanguard’s bow slammed into the side of the European Gateway, tearing a huge gash down her starboard side. Water immediately flowed in and entered the car deck creating a phenomenon known as the Free Surface Effect, where liquid as the free space to move around thereby creating instability on the platform – in this case the ferry itself. 

The European Gateway came to rest on its side on a nearby sandbank, only good fortune preventing her from completely going over. A  huge rescue operation was launched and helicopters began winching survivors out of the upturned ship, search lights trying to find those that were now missing, the operation would continue into the night. 

By the following morning it was clear that the ship was in a bad way, six people were confirmed dead, the rest taken off by a nearby ferry, lifeboats and the helicopters. The Speedlink Vanguard was alongside Harwich with the front of her bow smashed in but very little other damage compared to what the other ship had suffered. 

An investigation blamed both vessels for the tragedy, an inquest recording an open verdict. The Speedlink Vanguard was repaired and back at sea pretty much straight away. For the European Gateway, she was successfully salvaged the following year and incredibly she too was repaired and put back into service. 

Speedlink Vanguard would go on to have seven further name changes and be chartered by other companies all over the world before she was scrapped in 2013 as the Boa Vista

European Gateway would change names a further six times and spend most of her career in the Mediterranean, few people knowing her tragic past as they took this ferry around the Greek islands. With her final name as Penelope, she was scrapped in Piraeus in 2013. 

On the 31st anniversary of the disaster a memorial plaque was unveiled overlooking the place where this disaster happened, attended by many people who were there and who can never shake the memories of that terrible night from their minds. 

NOTE – At some point I would very much like to write a book about this disaster and tell the story of what happened. Everybody remembers the sinking of the other ferry owned by the same company five years later, the Herald of Free Enterprise, but few remember the European Gateway. If you have anything you think may be useful or were there at the time then please get in touch at or via my Facebook page.