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Shipyard town grieves for dead

After gangway accident, pride in ocean liner gives way to mourning

ST. NAZAIRE, France -- This blue-collar town on France's rough Atlantic coast has built its existence around a bustling shipyard where luxury cruise ships and military vessels are brought to life.

But St. Nazaire's 68,000 residents were in mourning yesterday, a day after 15 people fell to their deaths while visiting the nearly completed Queen Mary 2, the world's largest ocean liner.

As many as 32 people were injured -- six of them seriously -- when a metal gangway linking the dock and the hulking ship suddenly collapsed, sending people plunging at least 50 feet to the concrete floor of a dry dock. The liner is set to sail in January.

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited the temporary mortuary at St. Nazaire's shipyard, with Chirac extending his "compassion, solidarity, and sadness in the name of the French people."

Hundreds of sobbing visitors, including family members and local residents, poured into shipyard parking lots to share their grief, offer flowers, or write in a book of condolences. Flags flew at half-staff over police stations and city hall. Most of the victims were relatives or friends of shipyard workers. Two friends who died, Charlene Rio and Celine Duchesne, both 20, had just landed temporary jobs on the Queen Mary 2.

"This was their first and their last day of work," said friend Eve Denie, 22. "And they didn't ever even set foot on the boat."

This gritty town is France's biggest commercial ship manufacturer and has been churning out military vessels and ocean liners for decades. Some 10,000 full-time and contract employees work at the shipyard, officials said.

The town's fortunes traditionally have ridden the highs and lows of the maritime industry. With many cruise operators hurting these days, the Queen Mary 2 was a source of pride at the sprawling 267-acre shipyard and in town.

But "pride is second now" to grief, said Fabrice Ponchaux, 32, whose mother and aunt were killed Saturday and whose father was hospitalized with injuries.

About 48 people -- all wearing construction helmets to protect against injury -- crowded onto the gangway when it collapsed. The gangway was used several times the night before without incident, said Philippe Bouquet-Nadaud, a spokesman for French engineering giant Alstom.

A few people survived the fall and described plummeting to the pavement below.

"At the bottom, everyone was screaming, and blood was everywhere," said Jessica Boissier, 21, who spoke to French television with swollen eyelids and facial bruises.

Officials at ship builder Alstom Marine Chantiers de l'Atlantique said they would not speculate on what caused the collapse.

"Our priority will be to shed light on this tragedy -- to understand," said Alstom chief executive Patrick Kron, who visited the site with Chirac.

One distraught woman sobbed repeatedly, "Why didn't they put in a net?"

British ship operator Cunard Line, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., will operate the ship. Cunard spokeswoman Julie Davis said the Jan. 12 inaugural voyage from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was still planned. The Queen Mary 2 is the world's largest passenger ship at 1,138 feet long and 238 feet high. The ship can accommodate about 3,000 passengers.

The new liner is also the most expensive cruise ship, costing $800 million. Once completed, the Queen Mary 2 will boast a planetarium, 22 elevators, and the world's largest floating library.

The inaugural voyage is sold out.

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