Along the “Highway of the Sun”, a small path descends towards a commemorative plaque where the names and ages of the 53 dead are listed, including seven from the same family. 10 years old, 8, 7… The youngest was 5 years old.
Baby and smiling faces had made the front page of the newspapers, that of the Journal du Dimanche crossed out with an “Atroce” in black capital letters.
On the night of Saturday July 31 to August 1, in the middle of the summer crossover, two coaches leaving Crépy-en-Valois (Oise) were transporting 107 underprivileged children who were for the most part going to spend the first holidays of their lives in a colony of Savoy.
Around 1:40 am, they reach the “funnel” of kilometer point 313, 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 only slept 3-4 hours in between.
When a German bus brakes in front of him, he reacts belatedly. It is collision. The shock occurs at 16 km / h. However, what could only have been a story of crumpled sheets turns into a drama.
Because a 2CV crashes into the French bus and is sandwiched by the second bus carrying the rest of the children. Then another car hits the whole thing. Tanks explode, gasoline ignites.
– “It’s 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 in 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 spot, told AFP.
“When we arrive, it’s completely ablaze. We know that no one will come out alive. It’s too late”.
The firefighters can only put out the entanglement of sheet metal. Then “we see the horror, heaps of bodies…”, he remembers before being stopped by stifled tears.
“I had nightmares about it for years, years,” confesses 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 60 cm long. Three skulls came out of it”.
From “the calcined scrap metal, the firefighters took out remains that no longer had anything human about them”, 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 had flowers placed on each of them”.
In the room where the remains were lined up, families came to see their children. “It was terrible. A mother fainted. 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 dread well. On Sunday morning, she hears talk on the radio of a “serious accident”. But 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 confesses.
“We were on our own,” confirms Philippe Rouillard. The day after the accident, the professional firefighter will return 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 200 m away but avoids the place for his walks. “I don’t go near it.”