The Tragic Story of the Malpasset Dam Disaster

On December 2 of 1959, the Malpasset Dam in southern France collapsed, with the resulting floods leading to the deaths of more than 400 people. It was one of the worst disasters in France’s recent history. The dam, which was built on the Reyran River, a relatively short distance away from the Fréjus and Saint-Raphael area in the Var department. Over a 100 of the victims were children, with dozens of other children being left as orphans after losing their parents in the tragedy. The damage caused by the dam’s collapse came to an equivalent of $68 million, with hundreds of buildings and many hectares of land being obliterated.

Building the Dam

The dam’s construction started in April of 1952. It was finished two years later, in 1954. This meant that the dam was only standing for five years in total before its collapse.

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The Remains Of The Malpasset Dam In The Var After Its Collapse Due To Torrential Rains On December 2, 1959 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The Malpasset Dam was of the arch type and had been formed for irrigation and drinking water purposes, providing the local region with a steady, much-needed water supply. Construction had its ups and downs due to worker strikes and a low budget. By the time it was finished, the dam had measured 222m across, 66m tall, and had a maximum thickness of 6.78m.

Disaster

As with many tragedies, there had been a few warning signs before the Malpasset Dam collapsed. In November, a month before the event, workers noticed leaks and cracks, but no action was taken.

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Soldiers And Rescue Troops Dig in Deep Mud during Rescue Operations for Victims of the Malpasset Dam’S Collapse in Frejus On December 3, 1959. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Then, on the evening of December 2, the dam was breached. The area had seen a large amount of rainfall that day, and the dam couldn’t cope with the pressure. A huge wall of water flushed through, wiping out two local villages and arriving in Fréjus. Roads and buildings were destroyed, and much of the city was flooded. The death toll came to 423, with dozens of others being injured. One hundred thirty-five of the victims were aged below 15.

Cause

There were many causes of the disaster. One of the main issues was the fact that the workers at the time hadn’t been able to do a proper geological survey of the area. If they had, they would have seen a large layer of gneiss below the area where the dam was built. Gneiss is an impermeable rock, preventing water from flowing through it.

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Damages Caused By the Malpasset Dam Breaking at Freus in France on December 3Rd, 1959 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This meant that the water would just build up and up, not being able to flow through the ground. Later studies suggested that a tectonic fault may have been the major causes, with some even suggesting that the ground had been disturbed by explosions during the construction of a local highway.

Emergency Aid Rushes to Fréjus

In the wake of the tragedy, the French authorities and emergency workers had to respond and react as quickly as possible.

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(Photo by Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

French soldiers rushed to the scene, with US Navy members in the area also heading over to help out. Even simple construction workers volunteered to lend their aid however they could. Helicopters, boats, trucks, and all kinds of additional rescue vehicles and equipment were sent to the scene of the tragedy to save and help as many people as possible. Doctors and other medical workers also had to work round the clock to treat the wounded. They also put out requests for blood donors.

Stories of Bravery and Kindness

The Malpasset Dam disaster was an undisputed tragedy. However, as with any dark moment in humanity’s history, some inspiring stories came out of it. For example, a young girl, trapped by the floods, managed to save her two baby brothers by lifting them on top of a wardrobe, and many other stories came out about people in the floods putting their own lives at risk to save others.

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(Photo by Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Many who weren’t affected by the tragedy also decided to donate blood and send money to the Fréjus area. Many essential goods were donated to the families who had been left homeless, and many people even offered to take in the children who had lost their parents.

The Legal Aftermath

There was a major legal inquest in the wake of the disaster, with several penal, civil, and administrative, legal debates regarding the human responsibility for the tragedy. Various talks and debates continued on the matter for several years. It was only in 1971 that the Council of State (Conseil d’État) finally ruled out any human responsibility whatsoever.

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The Malpasset Dam was an arch dam on the Reyran River, located approximately 7 km north of Fréjus on the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur), which collapsed on December 2, 1959, killing 423 people in the resulting flood. (Photo by Manuel Litran/Corbis via Getty Images)

Many experts argued that the lack of action regarding cracks and leaks had been a major factor in the disaster. In the years that followed, much greater attention was placed on the geological side of dam construction, and various new practices were introduced to make dams safer and prevent any repeat of the tragedy.

Never Forgotten in France

Outside of France, the tragedy was more or less forgotten over time by most people, but those in France remember it well. Various books and papers have been written on the story.

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The French Ministers Robert Buron, Henri Rochereau, Pierre Sudreau And Bernard Chenot Bow Before The Bodies Of Victims Of The Disaster Of The Malpasset Dam Near Frejus At The Funeral At The Cemetery On December 6, 1959. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Not only that, but various documentaries have also taken a look at how and why the disaster occurred, with some investigative journalists questioning whether the collapse could have been prevented, or at the very least predicted to save many of the lives that were lost. French authors and journalists like Max Prado, Maryline Desbiolles, Vito Valenti, and Alfred Bertini have all explored the subject and a 2009 movie called ‘Prédictions’ referenced the disaster.

Honoring Those Who Were Lost

On December 2 of 2009, the 50th anniversary of the disaster, a unique sculpture was unveiled at Fréjus to honor those who died. The sculpture was made by Michel Mourier and featured the names of all of those who had died.

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It also featured a phrase from the former President of France, Charles de Gaulle, which read ‘Que Fréjus renaisse,’ which translates to ‘May Fréjus be reborn’ in English. Farah Pahlavi, who was once the Empress of Iran, was the special guest of honor at the commemorative event. Pahlavi adopted three children who had been left orphaned by the disaster. The ruins of the dam still stand and can be visited, with various guided tours running for tourists.