Tree Crushes 11 At French Concert

strasbourg storm
AP
No one could have predicted the tornado-like storm that swept across an open-air concert of Yiddish music, toppling a tree that crushed 11 people to death, officials said Saturday.

Still, storm warnings were numerous, and other outdoor concerts were canceled.

An investigation was opened into the Friday night accident to see who might bear responsibility for the drama that top officials attributed to fate.

Some 85 people were injured in the 10 p.m. drama just outside this picturesque city of the eastern Alsace region. Of the 85 injured, 52 remained hospitalized Saturday evening - 17 of them in serious condition.

Pope John Paul II was among those sending condolences to families of the victims, 10 of whom, described as “young adults,” were killed immediately. The 11th victim died Saturday in the hospital.

Questions rose as to why the concert had not been canceled when weather forecasters had predicted storms for three days, and again Friday night.

"Alas, neither tornados nor meteorological misfortunes are the responsibility either of the city or of the government," said Health Minister Bernard Kouchner after arriving here Saturday evening.

The brief storm cut a corridor through the wooded grounds of the Chateau de Pourtales, just miles north of Strasbourg and a popular site for strolls.

Despite the storm warnings, officials, citing the fury of the storm and the circumstances, ascribed the tragedy to an accident of fate.

The brief storm packed winds of up to 93 mph.

A plane tree, similar to a sycamore, crushed spectators who had left their bleacher seats about 15 minutes earlier, seeking protection from the rain under the makeshift tent, a tarpaulin covering a food stand.

Rescue workers had to cut the leafy branches of the tree to get to the victims trapped under the tarp.

"It was a panic," said Dominique Klein, a technician for the show interviewed on French television. "We tried to get through the branches."

If the 130 spectators "had remained seated on the bleachers, they would not have been touched," said Mayor Fabienne Keller on France-Info radio. "It is truly fate."

The top official of the region, the prefect Philippe Marland, also evoking "fate," described the storm as a "tornado" that lasted 10 minutes.

"No meteorological forecaster can accurately predict a tornado in such a precise spot and of such sudden violence," Marland told a news conference.

It was not clear whether the storm at the park qualified as a tornado.

Heavy storms swept across France on Friday night, from Strasbourg to Paris and Avignon, where the opening of the famous Festival d'Avignon was canceled. In the Alsace region, a major rock concert in Belfort was stopped and the 20,000 spectators sent home.

Storms also battered neighboring Germany, where three people were killed. A man was crushed by a falling tree Friday night while in his car in Mannheim, 55 miles south of Frankfurt, and two people drowned Saturdawhen their boats flipped in strong winds.

In France, a statement from the civil defense services, issued two hours before the Strasbourg drama, predicted brief but violent wind gusts in the region and warned that no one should take refuge under trees or walk in forests. It warned that damage was likely to any "temporary installations." Numerous traffic alerts for the region were issued Friday night.

"All of Strasbourg is in mourning," said Mayor Keller said.

Strasbourg officials said they had felt confident that only strong trees stood in the park, which was battered in the December 1999, tempest that devastated forests around France. Some 200 fragile trees had been removed, officials said.

The concert, part of the city's summer concert program, was mounted by the Strasbourg-based European Center for Yiddish Culture, dedicated to reviving the language spoken by European Jewry before World War II.

"A huge tree fell. And then everything just fell," said Astrid Ruff, a singer at the concert, interviewed on LCI television. She said the group's decision to proceed with the concert amounted to "imprudence."

About 100 firefighters and 30 doctors were on the scene. Rescuers brought the injured to hospitals in Strasbourg, which is near the French border with Germany.

French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin sent condolences to the victims, along with the pope.

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