‘Allo Paris, we have a problem…..
I have just returned from a trip to Toulouse in southern France. The main reason for the trip was to drive down from Paris with a replacement people carrier for our 7-man Reuters pictures team covering the month-long Tour de France cycle race. I was also somewhat concerned about the state of the teams morale after the latest in a series of setbacks that has plagued our crew since the Tours unusual departure from London.
The Tour de France is a logistical nightmare. We start preparations the best part of a year in advance due to its unique continually-moving nature. Hotel accommodation, communications and transport are hard to assure when some 4000 people descend on the tiny towns in deep rural France.
Our crew is made up of two mobile photographers , Eric Gaillard and Stephano Rellandini each with our regular professional motorcyclists Jacques Clawey and Michel Vatel driving them. A large camping car, used as our mobile bureau, is driven overnight to the following days arrival site by team leader Jacky Naegelen. This assures us a good position in the Technical zone close to the arrival line. Lastly our Renault Espace mobile transmission vehicle driven by a third photographer, Vincent Kessler and manned by journalism student Ian Langsdon who sits in the back to edit and transmit pictures by GPRS or 3G. This vehicle drives a few kilometres ahead of the race and picks up discs from the two shooters on motorcycles throughout each stage. It also carries all the extra equipment too cumbersome for a motorcycle and the personal bags (packed for a month away from home) of our motorcyclists, photographers and editor. So, all in all, we strive to leave as little to chance as possible. But sometimes, I guess, chance just insists on working against us.
Despite immaculate preparation by team leader Jacky Naegelen, a veteran of some 20 TDFs, our own mobile transmission vehicle, a 1-year-old Renault Espace turbo, still under guarantee, was not released from its pre-Tour checkup at Renault because of a consistent problem of the battery discharging. Renault was unable to pinpoint the problem and by the time we were ready to leave for the Tour, our car was still in a thousand pieces in the shop. So Renault, after much insistence, loaned us a similar vehicle for the duration of the Tour. Then we had re-kit this vehicle at the last minute with the special aluminium rear editing desk, radio communications and antennas. We also had to change all the paperwork with the Tour organisers, so the mood took a downturn. But the crew took off that afternoon and headed for London.
The mood darkened more as soon as our crew pulled up outside their Whitehall hotel where in the middle of unloading our bags, our two motorcyclists were given parking tickets. The mobile office (camping car) just missed getting clamped and we were obliged to park the other transmission vehicle in an unguarded lot over a mile away. Obviously the police were making no exceptions for the Tour de France press.
The following morning in London, photographer Eric Gaillard had a brand new Canon Mark III and lens stolen. Then, in the afternoon, photographer Vincent Kessler complained of pains in his arm. After being checked by the Tour de France doctors was diagnosed with a suspected coronary irregularity and he had to be repatriated to France for further tests. Zurich photographer Christian Hartmann came to the rescue and kindly replaced Vincent in London until we could find a permanent replacement for the rest of the Tour. So far, not so good.
Things kind of improved for a few days when the race moved back to France and the crew picked up its coverage rhythm. Brussels photographer Thierry Roge had replaced Christian for the remainder of the tour and took up his duties driving the Renault Espace and covering arrivals. We were doing very well with our pictures coverage and things were looking good . But on July 19, as the race wound its way between Marseille and Montpellier I had been sitting at my desk in Paris communicating live with Ian on Instant Messaging when suddenly he typed S—t, S—t, were on fire!. Receiving this kind of communication from anyone you know is bad enough but from ones own 21-year old son is indescribable. I called his cellphone and he picked up. O god, were on fire, the whole Renault is going up in flames. I told him to keep calm, forget the gear and move away from the vehicle. Then we lost communications.
What happened, it appears, is that while the vehicle was cruising along at about 60 kph ahead of the pack, awaiting an arrival of disks from the motorcycles, the Renault’s turbo caught fire, sending a ball of fire from the front right-hand side along the underside of the vehicle. Within seconds the car was completely engulfed in flames. Thierry Roge, driving, managed to grab his camera bag on the seat beside him and jump out. Ian, seated at our custom made desk in the back, baled out as the car slowed and immediately tried to remove as many personal bags as possible from the back door of the vehicle.
Eric Gaillards computer bag was hurled out first, Ians personal bag was next. But the personal bags were very big and heavy and he was only able to throw them about two meters away. Within seconds the heat was too intense to stay anywhere near the vehicle and he had to back off and as the raging fire spat large flaming pieces of burning plastic as far as the few bags he had saved. Thierry and Ian had no choice but to watch helplessly as the burning plastic sparks set their bags on fire just meters out of reach.
By this time our two motorcyclists carrying Eric and Stefano had arrived, but neither photographer realized immediately that it was the Reuters car on fire so they started shooting pictures. It wasnt until they spotted Thierry and Ian, both somewhat in shock, that they realized the horrible truth. By this time there was not much left to do but to cover the event journalisticaly. The race had been re-routed to a parallel road because of the thick smoke, so the fire became part of the story. Stefano and Thierry made stills as Ian was shooting video clips on his Canon Ixus. Despite a warning by gendarmes to the contrary, Eric made a dash and grabbed his burning computer bag, which because of its smaller size, Ian had manage to hurl the farthest from the fire.
We see Erics dash in the sequence used by Reuters Television from Ians footage.
Gendarmes arrive at the scene as Ian shoots video at left
Later that evening our motorcyclists went off and bought basic toilet kits for everyone and in the morning Jacky organized a trip to a nearby sports outlet to buy enough basic clothing and bags for the remainder of the tour.
Last night, around the dinner table, we talked over the incident and managed to put everything into perspective. Nobody had been injured, the equipment was largely replaceable and our old people-carrier was brought back into service soon after. Coverage, which had been excellent up until then, even continued in our favour the following day with many of Stefanos and Erics pictures of the fire published including in the International Herald Tribune. Eric had the entire front of Liberation and Ians video was picked up by RTV used on Eurovision. In a show of solidarity, AP, AFP and lEquipe had offered up all of their production until we were able to resume coverage.
This morning I left our team in goods spirits, ready to tackle the critical Pyrenees mountain stages and the following swing north, back towards the French capital. Maybe it was the good nights sleep after a hearty dinner accompanied by a rather generous amount of Gaillac wine, but something seemed to have cleared the air. There was a noticeable renewed energy amongst the team, almost as if their perceived Tour de France curse had been lifted along with the smoke from the fire.
Lets all wish them well for the rest of the Tour de France.
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