20 Dead In Cable Car Crash

Tragedy takes no account of beautiful settings, and it struck with a vengence in the little village of St. Etienne en Devoluy, high up in the mountains of south-western France Thursday.

The day shift had set out on its usual scenic commute this morning, riding the cable car up to an observation station where they worked at the top of a nearby peak. The technicians, cleaning staff and construction workers never made it, reports CBS Correspondent Mark Phillips.

About five hundred yards into its climb, something went drastically wrong. Somehow the gondola lost its grip on the cable and fell -- like a stone -- dropping about two hundred and fifty feet to Earth. Everyone inside died instantly.

For much of today there was some confusion as to whether there had been 20 or 21 victims. In the end, there were twenty. One of the usual mountain-top team was sent off on an errand just as the cable car was leaving on its last journey. It turned out to be the luckiest errand of his life.

Relatives of the victims gathered in the town square and were shuttled to the crash site by French police to identify the bodies. Some were so badly crushed that forensic experts will be needed to determine who they were.

The cable car was built in the 1980s according to local officials, and it recently passed a safety inspection. But just what went wrong, as it traversed its route to the mile-and-a-half-high summit, isn't known. One theory is that it began sliding backwards along the supporting cables until it unhooked itself and fell.

Though the area is a winter ski resort, the cable car was a service vehicle not used to transport tourists. The fact that the victims were not tourists but were all from this tight-knit mountain community makes this an even more personal tragedy. This beautiful place in the French Alps is in deep shock tonight.

Local officials say it is the worst cable-car disaster ever in France.