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The "Black Hole" of Paris


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The dreadful affair which came to pass on the Metropolitan Underground Electric Railway of Paris on the night of August 10, 1903, aroused popular feelings entirely different from those caused by the generality of railway accidents, however serious the casualties. The "Metro," though still a comparative novelty, had already come to form a recognised part of the daily life of thousands of Parisians. Rapidly augmenting congestion of street-traffic had stimulated the construction of a whole network of underground lines; the working population had become accustomed to rely implicitly on this new means of transport, so swift and so efficient; and when with stunning suddenness the great fatality occurred, the news was received at first with incredulity. It was incredulity which, when the thing was actually happening, predominated even in the minds of the doomed passengers themselves until a few short minutes before the advent of the horrible death which awaited them.... Despite public confidence in the "Metro," there seems to be no doubt that expert voices had uttered a sufficiency of grave warnings before the time of the calamity. Four to five months previously, for instance, Le Metro, the organ of the railway employees and certain affiliated trades, had complained of the working of the line and demonstrated in plain terms the dangers involved by the cheap and inefficient labour employed, the continual changes of staff, and the insufficient number of hands kept at work. Again, certain officers of the Paris Fire Brigade who had been members of the Special Commission appointed to consider the "Metro" project, had protested vigorously but in vain against the total absence of airshafts to ventilate the tunnels. The Committee of Hygiene in the Twelfth District, too, had expressed concern, not once but over and over again, at the lack of ventilation, the insufficiency of means of egress, and the small size of the stations. But, as so often happens, the responsible authorities had merely listened with thinly veiled impatience to these prophets of gloom and straightway dismissed their forebodings from mind, only to realise when it was too late that they had been right after all.

The catastrophe happened on the portion of the Metropolitan Railway which runs under the exterior Boulevards between Belleville and Menilmontant, a densely populated quarter inhabited almost exclusively by working-class people, and the trouble began at 7.35 p.m., when Train Number 43, coming from the Dauphine station, was forced to stop at the Gare Barbes through its motor being out of order. Indeed, it was emphatically stated afterwards by one of the Metropolitan's engine-drivers that the motor was in a defective condition before ever the train started, and ought not to have been used till it had undergone considerable repairs. At noon of that very day, moreover, the train had had to be taken off the line because the compressed-air brake failed to work.

Be that as it may, the train could not proceed, and the only thing to be done seemed to be for Train Number 52, which was following it at a short interval, to push it on to the terminus. Accordingly, the passengers of both trains were made to alight and transferred to a third train, Number 48, which was likewise travelling at a little distance behind. Trains Number 43 and Number 52 then proceeded onward connected together, Number 48 moving in their wake with its treble load of passengers. In this fashion the procession passed through a number of stations, and all went well until it had almost reached that of Les Couronnes. At this point it was suddenly discovered that the leading coach was on fire.

Exactly how this had come about was a much-debated question in the discussions which raged afterwards, but the generally accepted belief was that the fire must have arisen through a short-circuit in the wire connecting the motor with other parts of the train, which ran under the body of the car. There was little doubt, however, as to how the officials ought to have handled the situation, and that most emphatically they acted on wrong lines. "Before the two empty trains got to Couronnes," says the Station-master of that place, "flames had burst through the floor of the disabled train and were leaping up towards the doors and windows of the carriages containing ten terrified railway employees.... In passing Les Couronnes station the trains slackened speed. I was standing on the platform and gesticulated to them, calling out to the engine-driver on the second train, 'Stop, stop; you will never have time to reach the terminus!' He replied, 'Never you mind, we'll get there ail right,' and the two trains dashed into the tunnel, putting on full speed on their way to the Gare de Menilmontant."

Opinion was unanimous that the driver should never have taken the risk of going on. In an interview with Gil Bias, Mons. Bienvenue, principal engineer of the Metropolitan Railway, said: "There would have been no accident to deplore if the employees had remembered that there was a special siding for broken-down carriages, or carriages which have caught fire, between the Combat and Belleville stations." But Chauvin, the driver, when asked why he had not shunted into this special siding as soon as the fire was discovered, swore that he had been unable to divert his train because the points at Belleville station had not been working. However, it seems clear that, quite apart from the question of the siding, he did wrong in going on. "It would certainly have been better," stated an eminent electrical engineer, "to have extinguished the fire in the open, where the breakdown first occurred, than to have run the risk of pushing the train into the tunnel in a hopeless attempt to reach the terminus at the Place de la Nation. I am inclined to think that the driver of the train lost his presence of mind. He had a considerable section to run in the open air before he entered the tunnel, and no doubt the speed at which he went fanned the flames from the overheated motor and caused them to spread.... It is very difficult to deal with a fire on an electric railway, because water cannot be used while the current is on without instant danger. It would have been better to have dealt with the train in the open by cutting off the current and then calling in firemen to put out the flames. Traffic would have been suspended, but that would have been better than attempting to reach the terminus."

The trains, then, disappeared in succession into the mouth of the tunnel, heading for Menilmontant. As they were nearing the station, however, there was suddenly a violent explosion, and a long blue flame burst out between the car at the head containing the motor, and one of the central carriages. "In an instant," relates the Couronnes stationmaster, "all the eight carriages were on fire, and the employees had barely time to fly for their lives. The flames rose to the roof of the tunnel, and, following the wall, fused the electric-light wires. This plunged the tunnel in darkness, while the station itself was lit up by the flames. The current was cut off, and Train Number 48 was brought to a standstill between the Belleville and Couronnes stations, at a distance of about 300 metres from the burning carriages."

It might have been supposed that the passengers in this last-named train, when told what was happening on the line ahead, would have had the elementary sense to get as far away as possible from the scene of the conflagration with all speed. A crowd, however - and perhaps a Latin crowd in especial - can be incredibly mulish on occasion, and this particular crowd chose that ill-timed moment to indulge in a piece of stupid obstinacy which was to cost them dear. Let Mons. Chedal, the guard of Train Number 48, take up the tale and narrate his amazing experience with the 350 people under his care.

"Suddenly," says he, "I discovered a thick smoke coming from the direction of the Menilmontant station. Apprehending the danger, I shouted to the passengers to get out. At the same time I rushed to the telephone to request the authorities at the Belleville station to cut the current, but the telephone did not work. I called the guard and asked him to run on to the Belleville station by way of the Boulevards. He at once set off. Meanwhile the station staff were advising the passengers to leave the carriages, but they would not hear of it and replied, 'We've been made to get out at Barbes; we've had enough of that!'

"They then surrounded me and demanded the refunding of their fares. I replied to them, 'You will be repaid later on; save yourselves!' But they would not listen to me. They threatened me, and I received several blows from their fists. The gathering which had formed around me prevented the people in the last carriages from reaching the exit staircase, which the greater number of passengers had finally succeeded in doing.

"Suddenly the electric light went out, and in the darkness a terrible crush ensued. Piercing cries rent the air for some seconds, but we were soon choked by the smoke, which kept our mouths shut. I had wax matches lit, but the smoke immediately extinguished them. I groped my way along close to the wall, as I knew that the exit was at the left extremity of the arrival platform. I walked along the platform towards it. In following the wall I came upon a being whose arms were fighting with the darkness. I seized it and dragged it along with me. When we reached the steps of the exit, I felt that the person I was taking with me was growing faint. I myself began to be stifled and my head turned. I made a last effort to mount a few steps. On reaching the top we fell, both myself and the woman whom I had taken along with me - for it was a woman whom I had seized in the darkness. Very fortunately help speedily came to us. The rescuers lifted us up and took us into a chemist's shop."

The scenes which were enacted down there in the darkness as the passengers, after losing so much valuable time in vain argument, realised their peril at last and were seized with panic, are more easily imagined than described. "Heartrending shrieks and cries for help rose on every side, and men and women fought like beasts for air and liberty," states the Couronnes station-master. Some endeavoured to make their escape in the direction of the Rue des Couronnes, others attempted to grope their way to the Belleville egress, and the result was confusion of the wildest. Many of those who were fortunate enough to reach one or other of the exits were already half-suffocated and collapsed at the foot of the stairs. Seven persons were taken in a state of unconsciousness from the Couronnes station to the neighbouring chemist's shop mentioned by Mons. Ghedal.

There was another piece of monumental crowd-stupidity, too, besides the folly of those passengers who wanted their money back, as appears from the story of Mons. Alfred Martin, who narrated to Le Temps the experiences of himself and his wife. "At the Gare des Couronnes," says Mons. Martin, "there was another stop. The travellers became impatient and swore, or else they laughed and joked, but none of them was conscious of the impending danger. The station-master was about to give the signal of departure when two terrified employees came along shouting, 'Sauve qui pent!' There was a scene of rushing and scrambling; the dominant note, however, was not fright, but rather incredulity and fear of being the victims of a practical joke. However, the bulk of the travellers, and we with them, moved towards the stairs."

And now comes the piece of egregious, almost incredible stupidity. "It was impossible, however, to get out into the street. The stairs of the Gares des Couronnes were encumbered by people coming down to take the train. They did not want to make way for us; although we told them there was a serious accident, they received our words derisively. For some moments both my wife and I were hustled between two laughing and good-humoured crowds.

"The two streams of traffic were thus at a standstill at the foot of the stairs. The crush was awful. A small column of smoke was already advancing from the direction of Menilmontant. At that moment I had an inspiration. Had I remained with my unfortunate companions at the station of the Rue des Couronnes I would have probably lost my life. But wishing to spare my wife, who was almost fainting, the ordeal of a crush, I took her by the arm and said, 'Let us walk back to Belleville.' We stepped on the line with about ten other people and we started.

"Hardly had we gone ten yards in the tunnel when the light failed. We were in total darkness; we shouted, we called, and an employee arrived carrying a red lantern. He placed himself at the head of the party and we proceeded. The smoke, which was becoming thicker every minute, drove us before it. I had the feeling that one or two people behind us were falling. I heard a woman's cry, but I had all the trouble in the world to hold out myself and to support my wife, who was tottering. I did not turn my head, nor did any one else, so completely absorbed were we by the instinct of self-preservation. We arrived at the station of Belleville, which was crowded. The people thronging the staircase did not wish to go up. They were calling out for their three-halfpence. We cried, we entreated, but they would not give way to us. However, we had to get out. We were up to our necks in smoke. I sprang forward with my fists extended and we managed to get up the staircase."

Madame Justinel, of the Rue des Couronnes, describes an even more trying struggle.

"I got into the train at the Place de la Nation. I thought something was wrong and wanted to get out, but they wouldn't let me. When we passed Menilmontant I saw a red glare from the flames of the burning train.... After we had got out of the train everybody was scratching, biting and tearing desperately in their efforts to escape suffocation. I could feel the smoke catching at my throat and choking me, and at my side a mother and daughter fell unconscious to the ground. I never saw them again. My clothes were all in shreds when I reached the street, helped up the staircase by two men, who fought their way through the smoke towards me.... My ribs were sore afterwards, and I can remember that I fell several times after leaving the carriage, and people tried to trample on me."

We have now studied with some thoroughness the various accounts given by the station-master of Les Couronnes, the guard of Train Number 48, and two passengers, and in all these narrations one thing is strikingly evident. Although each of these survivors lays great stress on the desperate struggle for life and liberty that went on in the dark tunnel, and although we hear a good deal about the absurd folly of the passengers who risked their existence to wrangle over the return of a three-halfpenny fare, and the equally crass stupidity of the descending throng who refused to believe that an accident really had happened, there is not one word to indicate that the narrators themselves realised at the time that anything worse had occurred than a mishap resulting in a severe but transitory phase of peril and discomfort. The fact is, of course, that these were people who all had the good fortune to be in the forefront of the stampede. It was impossible for them to know then - or even, for that matter, at the time when they gasped out their experiences to the eager pressmen - that in the depths behind them, prevented from ascending to comparative safety by these unnecessary delays which caused themselves such distress, was a congested drove of their fellow passengers enveloped in the full volume of the fumes, choking and blinded, groping in futile impotence for the means of egress they never were to find....

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