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France buries forgotten victims of heat wave

The bodies of 57 Parisians that were never claimed are buried in side-by-side plots.

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 4, 2003

THIAIS, France - There were no eulogies. No spoken prayers. No weeping relatives. An official recited the victims' names, and 57 caskets were lowered into side-by-side plots as President Jacques Chirac stood by silently.

Chirac paid tribute at the simple ceremony Wednesday for Parisians whose bodies were never claimed after a brutal heat wave killed an estimated 11,435 people in August. Despite the state honor, they were buried in a part of the suburban cemetery usually reserved for the destitute or homeless.

"He deserved better than this," said Christian Lepabic, who remembered former colleague Roger Colinot, 76, as a bon vivant - someone who brought back chocolates from frequent trips to Switzerland for fellow workers at the bank.

Colinot retired in the mid 1980s. Lepabic said he lost touch this year with his friend, who had no family except for a niece in the United States.

"I'm devastated," he said.

Most of those who died in the heat wave were elderly, and many lived in Paris, where temperatures were the highest since officials started keeping records in 1873. In early August, temperatures sometimes reached as high as 104 degrees.

At one point, several hundred bodies lay unclaimed in Paris morgues. Officials tracked down the families of most victims. By Wednesday, nearly three weeks after the heat subsided, 57 bodies still had not been claimed.

A few dozen mourners turned up at the ceremony with bouquets. Some said they didn't know any of the victims but were moved by their solitude.

Many victims died alone in overheated city apartments while their families were away on vacation. Now, France is trying to answer painful questions about why so many of its most vulnerable citizens were abandoned.

One tearful young Parisian, Celine Rocquain, said the deaths were testament to the loneliness of big-city life. In Paris, she said, people often keep to themselves and don't know their neighbors.

"Paris is the capital of individualism," said Rocquain, who carried a bouquet of pink lilies. She was distraught that so many elderly people had no one checking in on them.

"I think a small gesture could have saved some of them," she said.

Some of the heat victims died of dehydration, as the aging often have a dwindling sense of thirst. Others were on medications that exacerbated their water loss. Still others developed high fevers.

Though the heat wave hit most of Europe, no other nation reported deaths anywhere near the scale of France's - possibly because of the way they were counted here. France compared the number of deaths this August with previous years.

In Germany, authorities tallied each case, rather than estimate them, and reported at least 30 deaths. On Wednesday, however, Cologne was the first major German city to report a sharp increase in deaths - 16 percent more than usual in August. But only eight deaths in Cologne were officially declared heat-related.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe briefly addressed reporters outside the cemetery gate Wednesday. Out of respect for the victims, he said, the ceremony was "very simple, with a lot of restraint." Neither Chirac nor Delanoe spoke at the service.

Despite the burials, families still can claim the bodies, as they can be exhumed and moved into other graves.

Former bank co-workers learned of Colinot's death when they saw his name in a newspaper list of unclaimed victims. Two of them came bearing a plaque wrapped in green crepe paper with the inscription, "From your colleagues."


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