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image of the paris metro fire 1903

Technology in the early part of the 20th Century was a new and wondrous experience for many people. But the infancy of any technological expansion will inevitably lead to human error, often with catastrophic and deadly consequences.

The Paris Métro fire of 1903 also known as the Couronnes disaster, after the station where most deaths occurred. This disaster took place in Paris, France, on the 10th August 1903.

Line 2 North of the system was was less than a year old and mainly underground, though it included an elevated section which was four stations long. Boulevard Barbès to Rue d’Allemagne was worked by a mixture of four and eight car trains. The line had loop tracks at each end where the trains turned, thus making sure the same car always remained at the front of the train.

The disaster began just before seven in the evening when double train Number 43, double trains having electric motors in the front and rear cars, arrived at Boulevard Barbès station with heavy smoke pouring from one of the motors on its front car, serial number M202.

Immediate evacuation of the passengers commenced and they were told to stay on the platform. Meanwhile, the shoes that control the flow of power were lifted from the third rail to cut off the electric flow. The burning subsided. It seems no further investigation was completed and the rail staff’s focus was on the station platform full of angry passengers. Restoring the service now became the staff’s priority. To facilitate this, the train had to be moved but there was no siding.

Unaware that the motor had not simply overheated, but in fact had a serious short-circuit, the decision was made to move the train under its own power. The train left the station in a cloud of black smoke and it wasn’t long before the fire on car M202 reignited with a greater ferocity. The scene was set for the drama to unfold into a disaster.

The train moved into the tunnel and then stopped for help at the next station, Combat. There the shoes were once more lifted whereupon the burning stopped. But then power was reapplied, and the burning restarted and this time the wooden paddles used to lift the shoes were consumed by the fire.

The only way the train could be moved was by getting another train to give Number 43 a push. Passengers waiting at Barbès had boarded the next train, a single train designated number 52, which advanced to Rue d’Allemagne where it awaited the signal to continue. Train 52 was then ordered to unload its passengers and was driven to Combat. Here it coupled-up to the rear of train 43. This triple train slowly moved forward, but the short circuit on the front car M202 was still live and feeding the fire.

Service on the other trains continued and train number 48, following on from 43/52, had advanced to Rue d’Allemagne. A mass of passengers evacuated from trains 43 & 52 pushed and shoved their way onto the crowded four cars of train 48. As 48 arrived at the next station with a triple load of passengers, smoke was already flowing from the tunnel ahead. The driver of 48 stopped his train halfway up the platform and conferred with the stationmaster. It was now apparent that the danger was so great that passengers should be evacuated to the street. But that decision came too late. The circuit supplying the station lighting was suddenly burned through and the station was plunged into darkness. A cloud of dense and choking smoke quickly emerged from the tunnel as the wooden structure of trains 43/52 were engulfed by the fire. It took only a few more seconds before the station became a death trap. With the thick and choking smoke and sudden darkness inhibiting their senses, passengers and staff alike became disoriented. Many people simply stumbled around in the dark desperately trying to find a way out, only to be asphyxiated by the dense clouds of smoke.

Eighty-four people died on that fateful summer evening in Paris.

Copyright Tom Kane © 2018

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