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Death in the alps

Death in the alps

Two planes from the same airline crashed in the same spot in the Alps, 16 years apart. Now the melting ice is releasing their secrets. Simon Akam travels to Chamonix to meet the investigator who believes the truth has been buried

Two planes from the same airline crashed in the same spot in the Alps, 16 years apart. Now the melting ice is releasing their secrets. Simon Akam travels to Chamonix to meet the investigator who believes the truth has been buried

Simon Akam | December/January 2020

The morning of January 24th 1966 brought snow to Chamonix. Grey clouds softened the outlines of the larch trees above the French Alpine village. Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak at 4,807 metres, lies 10km to the south. It was shrouded in cloud. Just before 11am, a gust of wind dispersed the fog and the snowfields on the summit appeared. But they were no longer pristine. An observer spotted peculiar black marks speckling the landscape.

In the cramped office of the local mountain-rescue police, the telephone rang incessantly. An Air India Boeing 707 named the Kanchenjunga, carrying 117 people, had been due to arrive in Geneva at 8.02am. But it was nowhere to be seen. Mountain guides and gendarmes from across Chamonix were mustered.

Georges Payot, now a sprightly octogenarian but then 28 years old, remembers being told, “There’s an accident on Mont Blanc. We have to go to help.” The day suddenly seemed sickeningly familiar to him. Sixteen years earlier another plane, the Malabar Princess, carrying eight crew and 40 passengers, had also gone missing while heading for Geneva. It came down close to the Rocher de la Tournette, a rocky spur that lies just below the ice cap on the summit of Mont Blanc. If a plane were to clip the Alps anywhere, then the massif’s highest part was the obvious place. The coincidence was nonetheless uncanny. Even more extraordinarily, the Malabar Princess also belonged to Air India.

When the first plane went down in 1950, Georges Payot was only 12. But his father, René, was working as a mountain guide (the profession is hereditary here). René led a search party on foot from Chamonix towards the aircraft. The snow was deep and fresh, and it took them two and a half hours to cross just 1.5km of the glacier.

At around 3pm on the second day of their ascent, René was leading the party across a snow bridge over a crevasse in the glacier when it collapsed beneath his feet. As his colleagues tried to haul him back, they heard a roar. They scrambled to safety, but an avalanche covered René with six metres of snow. He died in almost exactly the same place that his brother, Léon, had – also in an avalanche – in July 1938. Georges Payot was told by one of his schoolteachers to return to his grandmother’s house, where he lived with his parents and three sisters. He watched as his father’s body was brought in and laid out.

So in 1966, when Georges Payot, now a fully fledged mountain guide, was asked to join in the rescue, he demurred. “My father, an accident on Mont Blanc, an aircraft. The same thing, Air India, the same place,” Payot recalls. “I said no.” But mountain rescue had changed in the intervening period. Helicopters were now widespread, obviating the need for arduous and dangerous ascents. In 1950 the journey took two days on foot; in 1966 it took only a few minutes. Payot was eventually persuaded to go.

He recalls the overpowering reek of aviation fuel at the crash site. The snowfield was strewn with aircraft debris: port-holes, sections of fuselage, tubing, suitcases, pieces of silk, a wheel, a jet engine. One person found a burned pilot’s cap that bore a medal. There were bodies of laboratory test monkeys that had been on board the flight; at first the rescuers thought that they were children. And then there were the human remains. “It was horrible, I’ve never seen chaos like it,” the gendarme in charge would later write. As was the case 16 years earlier, there were no survivors.

The authorities sealed off the crash site until spring. An official narrative emerged that the accident was the result of pilot error. But Philippe Réal, an enterprising editor at ORTF, France’s public broadcaster, was sceptical about the story. He sent a camera crew on a clandestine expedition up the Italian side of Mont Blanc amid harsh winter conditions. One cameraman told me that even inside a hut on the mountainside, the temperature was “easily -20°C”. The team slept with their camera batteries inside their sleeping bags to keep them working.

When members of the team reached the downed plane, they found evidence that was hard to explain. One piece of wreckage was stamped “1st June 1960”, yet the Boeing had come into service only in 1961. More telling was a yellow section of fuselage made of an extremely light alloy, a piece of what appeared to be armour and some fragments that were painted with camouflage. It seemed unlikely that these could have come from the Indian airliner.

At first the broadcaster merely reported that its journalists had made an expedition to the site to locate the Boeing’s black-box flight recorder. Even that restrained announcement stirred a furious response from the French interior minister, who rang up the station in a rage. The head of the broadcaster, who had not been informed of his underling’s renegade behaviour, was scandalised. Once the team members were off the mountain, they announced their theory that the Boeing had collided with another aircraft.

The authorities confiscated the wreckage the journalists had brought down. But the theory didn’t die. To many people, two planes from the same airline crashing in the very same spot seemed to breach the laws of probability. Speculation that something sinister was afoot was fuelled by the fact that Homi Bhabha, head of India’s atomic programme, was on board the second plane. Over subsequent decades, the explanations would ramify and mutate. And one person would do more than anyone else to dredge up evidence that challenged the authorised version of events.

On a Monday evening last August a 67-year-old man dressed in tennis whites, with a moustache and a ruddy, jowly complexion, drove his silver Porsche Boxster at disconcerting speed through the French Alps. The Boxster, which Jean-Daniel Roche said brought his lifetime tally of Porsches to nine, was crammed with books and documents relating to the two Air India crashes. On the road, Roche berated the automotive habits of the Alpine French, whom, he witheringly suggested, drive “like the Swiss”.

Earlier that day, Roche had told me that his grandfather had been an aeronautical engineer. “I had a very early link to aviation, the passion of the plane,” he said, interrupting our conversation to hand out a flyer to a passer-by, advertising a showing of his film about the crashes. Roche has many talents. He played football professionally as a goalkeeper for AS Cannes. He has been a sailing instructor and in 1970 he represented France at the sport. He also worked as a factotum for Claude François, a singer whose stature in France is comparable to that of the Beatles in Britain. When Roche retired as a footballer in his 30s, he started building up a portfolio of properties. That business provided him with the income to follow his true fascination.

In 2002 Roche read “Crash au Mont Blanc”, a book about the Air India incidents written by Françoise Rey, a Parisian journalist who moved to Chamonix. This work sparked a fascination for Roche that is yet to abate. Though he is interested in many aviation disasters, and even prospected around the Parisian suburb where a Concorde crashed in 2000, his real obsession is the two Air India flights that met their end on Mont Blanc.

When Roche first became interested he had no mountaineering experience, so he enlisted the services of a guide to take him onto the Bossons glacier, where much of the wreckage lay. On these excursions Roche wore an ancient red-and-blue mountain suit, the uniform of a French ski instructor, though he never confirmed to me that he held such a qualification. Soon Roche started venturing onto the ice by himself, often accompanied by his daughter Diane, then six years old. That he took a child into such a dangerous environment is one – but far from the only – criticism levelled at Roche.

Remnants from the planes had been appearing for some time: a wheel from the Malabar Princess was recovered from the lower reaches of the Bossons as early as August 1987. With persistence and a great deal of time, Roche uncovered sections of metal, seatbelts, throttles from the cockpit, a flare pistol and a camera whose film, once developed, showed a murky mountaineer. Some of his discoveries were bigger. In 2007 he found a propeller from the Malabar Princess; in 2018 he came across a jet engine from the Boeing and chartered a helicopter to airlift it out. He crammed such discoveries into impractical vehicles – a souped-up Renault Clio, a string of Porsches – in which he hurtled around the mountain roads.

Over the years Roche promoted himself relentlessly in the French press, calling up journalists when he made new discoveries and taking television crews with him into the mountains. He earned the nickname “Tintin of Mont Blanc”, and, less flatteringly, “La teigne du glaciers” (the ringworm of the glaciers).

Everywhere he went he stirred controversy: “It’s awful. At first, I was the plague,” he told me. “They said, ‘What does he want to do?...Stir the shit?’” The experience was “very, very, very hard”. He was taken to court and interrogated by the police who asked him, “Why are you doing this? What do you want to prove? This is an old story.” Roche says he believes that the order to thwart his investigations “comes from a high level. They’re afraid I’ll find something I should not have discovered.”

Rey, the journalist who wrote the book that hooked Roche, described him to me as an “unsavoury character”, who was “persona non grata in Chamonix”. Others have more nuanced views. “He’s peculiar,” said Jean-Marc Peillex, mayor of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, a village near Chamonix, who has known Roche for years. “He has been discredited for years because he’s so invasive,” he said. “He creates a reaction: rejection.” Nonetheless, he added, “well-informed authorities do not exclude his theories”.

Roche (pictured above) gives presentations to audiences across the Alps and farther afield, laying out his theory of the crash. I saw him give one of them on a stormy evening at the Montjoie theatre in Saint-Gervais. Rain lashed down on the old spa hotels. Roche had plastered an entire wall of the lobby with newspaper cuttings about himself. In the auditorium he presented his own film on the incidents entitled “Les Sanglots Indiens du Mont Blanc” (The Indian Sobs of Mont Blanc). The film’s grainy sequences and snatched transitions bore the hallmarks of home editing. Roche provided commentary from stage left.

Previously Roche had believed that the 1966 Boeing had been downed by a missile. Now he is an enthusiastic subscriber to the theory first advanced by the French broadcaster over 50 years ago – that the plane collided with an aircraft, namely an F-104G Starfighter fighter jet. Roche has enriched this hypothesis with another slug of intrigue.

This Starfighter, Roche claimed, was in Italian service. He reckons the Italians were using their Starfighters to spy on a French military installation within the Mont Blanc massif to find out more about the work there. This, Roche said, included wind-tunnel tests of jet engines and the development of protective clothing for radioactive environments. Roche believes that the Italian plane came to take photographs every week. It would cut its transponder to avoid detection – but this meant that it would have been invisible to the aircraft with which it collided. “The case was covered up,” said Roche. “Because in France, we do that with anything disturbing.”

As evidence for his theory, Roche exhibited strips of film that he had found on the glacier, featuring landscapes. These, he claimed, were drawn from reconnaissance cameras carried by a Starfighter. The films – he says he has found eight – bore printed dates from shortly before the January 1966 crash.

Among the audience in Saint-Gervais was Lieutenant- Colonel Stéphane Bozon, who runs the Chamonix branch of the police mountain-rescue unit. Despite receiving 5m tourists each year, Chamonix has only a small permanent population and its official positions are dynastic in nature. In 1950 Bozon’s father was a member of the rescue party for the first crash.

At the end of his talk Roche spoke over the audience to Bozon, addressing him ingratiatingly as “Mon Colonel”. Afterwards I asked Bozon what he thought of Roche’s theories. “He brings scraps, fragments of evidence,” he said, “but proof would require further investigation, and maybe that the top-secret file be declassified.” It took a while for it to dawn on me that Bozon might also be an Air India truther.

At the time when the Air India flights crashed, flying was still a luxury. Over the past half-century air travel has become far more common and much safer. Yet our extraordinary fascination with plane crashes has, if anything, increased. When a Malaysia Airlines aircraft disappeared over the Indian Ocean in 2014, when a Germanwings flight was deliberately flown into a mountainside in 2015 and when two Boeing 737 MAX planes defied their pilots in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019, people sought explanations for why these disasters happened – and generated an abundance of possible theories. Despite overwhelming evidence for the relative safety of air travel over other forms of transport, the prospect of a plane crash, in its completeness and finality, conjures a deep level of anxiety. The unnatural and hubristic attempt by humans to fly requires many of us to make a leap of faith when boarding a plane. Disasters seem to be the just revenge of the gods. Air crashes are over in a bang. But the smog they leave behind grows thick with the passage of time.

Glaciers creep, some by less than a metre each year, others much faster. It takes half a century for ice to move from the top to the bottom of the Bossons glacier in Chamonix. But something else has been happening in the Alps in recent years too: because the planet has warmed up, the glaciers of Chamonix are melting. And as the ice turns to water, it is releasing secrets that have stayed frozen for the past 60 years.

At their greatest extent, some 25,000 years ago, the glaciers of the Alps reached as far as Lyon, 160km from Chamonix. Since then there have been cycles of advance and retreat. In the Middle Ages the Alps were warmer than today, but around 1600 a climatic phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age set in. In Chamonix, the Mer de Glace glacier began to swell and drive forward into the Chamonix valley with increasing speed. It bulldozed two villages in the 1640s; at times its snout moved two metres a day. The valley’s inhabitants enlisted the services of the bishop of Geneva to exorcise the implacable ice floe. That intervention proved remarkably successful. Within a few decades the glacial advance had peaked. Nevertheless, the icefields remained spread out for some time.

Ice began to retreat from the early 19th century, a process that accelerated last century as temperatures rose. The Mer de Glace has retreated 500 metres since 2005 alone. By 2050, on south-facing slopes at 1,500 metres, there will be an estimated 25 fewer days of snow on the ground each year and 20 days fewer on northerly aspects.

There are advantages to warmer temperatures: in the Chamonix valley the growing season is now two to four weeks longer than in 1960. But climate change threatens the ski industry, which, along with mountaineering, has transformed Chamonix from a poor village into a gilded retreat. And lives, as well as livelihoods, are at threat. Melting permafrost, which acts as a cement holding slopes together, increases the risk of rock fall.   

Globally, thawing ice is revealing remnants of the natural world and human culture that have long been hidden. In Scandinavia and North America, archaeologists have retrieved thousands of artefacts belonging to Viking and Native American cultures. Prospectors in Siberia are rushing to extract woolly-mammoth tusks from the melting permafrost. And in Chamonix, two dismembered aero­planes are emerging from the deep freeze.

Two mechanisms are bringing relics of the Air India planes to light. The flow of the glaciers has transported them to within four kilometres of the centre of Chamonix. Parts of the Malabar Princess began to appear at the foot of the Bossons in the 1980s, less than 40 years after the crash. The wheel found in 1987 is mounted in a café from which patrons could once look onto the glacier. Now they can barely see the ice because it is retreating so fast.

The second mechanism bringing up the wreckage is melt. The collapse of ice cliffs can lead to particularly dramatic findings, as objects that were previously completely concealed are spat onto the ground below the snout of the glacier.

The longer I spent in Chamonix, the more it became apparent that geological events had corrupted the ordinary workings of memory. In 1950 and 1966 two incomprehensible disasters took place. Because of the inaccessibility of the terrain, a proper investigation was impossible. There was no reckoning and the dead were not accorded a proper burial. Yet as time elapsed the incidents didn’t fade. Quite the opposite: more and more remnants kept appearing. The dead did not sleep, because the glaciers were dragging them ever closer to the land of the living.

Françoise Rey, the most prominent French expert on the crashes, met Daniel Roche for the first time in 2006. She received a call on her mobile. “A flood of lyrics, compliments, thanks,” she later wrote. “Gratitude for my book, for having changed his life.” Roche told Rey that he had recovered the handbag of Josette Bonnargent, a French woman on board the 1966 flight. He added, Rey said, that he had fallen in love with Bonnargent. Rey was suspicious but when Roche asked her out to dinner, she agreed.

The encounter took place at a restaurant in Chamonix, and Roche had brought the handbag with him. From it he produced glasses, a letter and an entry ticket for the swimming pool at a hotel called Sun-n-Sand. He also withdrew Bonnargent’s underwear and bikini. On another occasion Rey’s daughter, around eight at the time, answered the door to Roche, who was brandishing a human scalp.

Rey says that she was shocked, when researching her book, by the matter-of-fact manner in which her sources described finding body parts on the glaciers. “Everyone, in the 1980s, boasted of having found a head, an arm, a foot,” she told me. “I was thinking, ‘how can we talk about human remains without going to the gendarmerie, without making a statement, without contacting the families?’”

So what, exactly, have the crash hunters been looking for? They are certainly searching for more than merely evidence of the causes of the disasters. Allegations of grave robbing have for decades dogged those investigations. There were some valuable items on board the second plane. In 2013 an anonymous climber found a jewellery case, the contents of which were worth around €245,000 ($270,000). The box was given to the police. Roche has repeatedly insisted that he does not sell his discoveries for profit, but a French documentary from 2015 included screenshots from a website called Le Bon Coin, in which an individual called Roche could be seen advertising jewels and documents from the Air India crashes for sale. The pages have since disappeared. When pushed Roche admitted to making a little money from sales in order to defray the expenses of recovery.

Debris from the crashes is on show in several cafés and restaurants around the foot of the Bossons glacier. But the memory of those who died has largely gone untended in Chamonix. At the entrance to the tunnel to Italy nearby is a huge installation commemorating the 39 people who died in a fire there in 1999. Yet, apart from a small private panel dedicated to Bonnargent in the local cemetery, there is no memorial in the town itself to those who died on the Air India flights.

When disasters happen, according to Gaëlle Clavandier, a sociologist who studies death, people typically suffer a mourning period and then, in time, the situation stabilises. “You have a memorial to commemorate the catastrophe and that generally unites people. But here, objects appear, and there’s a reaction to that. Things come back that were – relatively speaking – forgotten before.”

Recently there have been some attempts to address this lack of commemoration. Three memorials to the victims have been erected. Two feature work by Josée de Vérité, a local artist, who uses gleanings from the wreckage. At a ceremony at one of these sites in August 2019, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, sent a message via video-link.

Rey reckoned that this glut of commemoration has come about only because the melting ice has made the crashes impossible to ignore. “Everyone is doing their memorial,” she told me. “Victims, victims, victims. Yet for decades they did not respect them. I am very angry this year, very angry because before they did nothing. They took things from the dead and said nothing. But now, they are saying it’s all about the victims. How hypocritical is that?”

Yet life in the mountains is tough and dangerous. Eric Fournier, who is the mayor of Chamonix, told me that his own father died in a climbing accident in 1976 when he was just a child: “Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of dramas in Chamonix…We can’t have a memorial for every mountain disaster.”

The most elaborate shrine to the crashes lies 780km north-west of Chamonix, in a terraced house in the small town of Pontivy in Brittany. This is the home of Jean-Noël Benoît, a helicopter pilot in the French air-ambulance service, who is also fascinated by plane crashes. Here is the latest repository for most of Roche’s finds (though not larger pieces like the jet engine). Benoît made clear to me that he paid Roche for the collection, though he asked for the price not to be published. (Roche said “I gave him everything and he just gave me some money here and there. A few hundred euros. Enough to pay for my trip.”)

Benoît’s house smelt of incense and he clearly had a longstanding interest in the macabre. (His wife, a psychiatrist, told me they met during an autopsy.) Benoît owns relics of the Air France Concorde that crashed in 2000 and a case of fragments from the Germanwings tragedy. But Air India material dominates his collection. This includes cockpit instruments and jewels from the passengers, sections of fuselage and, in a plastic box on the floor, Josette Bonnargent’s handbag, hair curlers and underwear. “I really see the historical side,” he said, when I asked him if his collection was morbid. “I have a little knowledge of flying. I know what it’s like to be afraid in flight. What can it be like to be in a crash? But I don’t only see the morbid side.” He had, he said, proposed an exhibition of “aeronautical archaeology” to the national French aviation museum. They never replied.

Crash conspirators find one object in his collection particularly significant. This is a bent panel, 25cm by 12cm, bearing bunches of wiring, circular switches and rusting brackets. Four letters are printed on it, three times, above numerical codes: USAF, or United States Air Force. For Roche and his supporters, this item serves as definitive proof that the Boeing’s fatal problem was due not to weather conditions, but because it collided with an American-built F-104G Starfighter.

A succession of investigators, professional and amateur, have raked over the details. David Cenciotti, a former Italian air-force officer, said that Italian military records show that the only problem involving a Starfighter on 24th January 1966 occurred south of Rome: the airframe was severely damaged during take-off. Another Starfighter did crash the following day – the model was notoriously unreliable – but this accident was also near Rome.

We are unlikely ever to get a definitive answer about why the Air India flight went down. The records of Starfighter flights are known to be imperfect. And the Boeing’s black-box recorder still has not been found. Even if it were to emerge, it might not provide much information: the pilots were communicating calmly from the cockpit until seconds before the plane hit the mountain.

Most residents of Chamonix no longer care about answers. But there are some for whom they still matter: the relatives of those who died in the crash. Ivan de Souza is the son of the pilot of the 1966 flight. If the official finding of pilot error is correct, then his father, an experienced stick-and-rudder man who previously flew the pope on a visit to India in 1964, bears responsibility for the deaths of 116 people alongside his own. De Souza never met his father: his mother was pregnant in January 1966 and he was born two months later. Though he has yet to visit Chamonix, he has been in touch with Roche who, in inimitable fashion, sent his family a memento: the throttle from the plane made up as a curio, mounted on a specially made pedestal.

Roche agreed to take me prospecting below the Bossons glacier. As we were driving along the motorway that bisects the Chamonix valley, he spied a traffic jam ahead. Abruptly he pulled his Porsche onto the hard shoulder and began reversing illegally up a ramp for oncoming traffic. I was in a car behind and had little choice but to follow. I wondered if we might become crash statistics ourselves.

Eventually we parked at the end of a dirt track and walked into the trench carved by the glacier’s retreat. It was still only partly vegetated. The snout of the remaining glacier hung above us, blue-grey and laced with crevasses.

It is worth emphasising what a foolish expedition this was. We ended up directly beneath a rotting ice cliff at midday at the warmest time of the year. Roche was wearing impractical trainers and his ski-instructor jacket. Though chatty, he was also a little jaded: he had been here too many times to count. The loose rock made climbing difficult and I thought that this might turn into an exercise in journalistic futility. Then we saw a lump of foam. Roche reckoned it was the stuffing from a seat. As we ascended, the trail of debris grew. Some items were unrelated to the crash: a fragment of a ski; a mountaineering boot. But we also came across numerous bolted pieces of metal with anti-corrosion paint and tangles of cabling. These clearly came from an aircraft.

We paused for a moment. When we looked down, we saw a piece of rubber, at least a metre across, peeling off a rusty rim. The rubber was split in places. Though some flanges were missing, we had clearly found a tyre. It had previously been hidden by boulders. Roche, certain that it came from the Boeing, was invigorated. This was a major trophy and would require a helicopter to move it.

The tyre had probably been released by an ice cliff collapsing above us, Roche said. It was around noon and the glacier loomed menacingly above us. I stood back, out of the zone most threatened by the ice, while Roche He was ten metres away when we saw it.

A body lay by the right bank of the stream. It was mostly bones, faded to the colour of the surrounding pebbles. When Roche, with scant ceremony, lifted up the spinal column, a talon of astonishingly bright red flesh dangled loose. The body was not surrounded by any of the durable apparatus of alpinism – no boots or karabiners suggested there had been a mountaineering accident. It was probably, though not certainly, an Air India victim. For the first time I felt the lure of the crash. Roche, on the other hand, seemed unimpressed. He gave it a desultory poke.

At high altitude bodies can be preserved by ice, but as they descend the glacier they are steeped in water in which bacteria flourish. Decay sets in. Downwind we could smell the rot. Beetles crawled in the hole in which the skeleton lay. Roche picked at the bones. Below us were the meadows of Chamonix, basking in high summer.

Roche got on the phone to mountain rescue. They promised that a helicopter would be sent to fly the corpse out, but we waited and none arrived. “There are two serious accidents in the mountains, so for the moment they can’t come,” Roche explained. We loitered for over an hour, sitting on the rocks across the stream from the dead person. The sunshine suddenly felt cold. I pulled on a jacket. Roche was on the phone, working his contacts at the local paper, publicising the crash relentlessly.

Eventually we decided to leave. As we wandered downhill, we passed a woman walking a large dog. I asked her its breed. Roche hissed, “Don’t tell people. I’ve called the press.” That evening, I tried to find out what had happened to the body. I got a lift with Roche to the heliport outside Chamonix from where the mountain-rescue police stage their flights. A young gendarme told us that they had managed to retrieve the corpse. Then Bozon himself appeared, still wearing his climbing harness. They would not try to identify the body, he said. They could do DNA tests, but they lacked a reference sample. “It’s way too expensive to go to India to identify the families and find the family members,” he told me. “It’s a mad idea.”

When the Germanwings flight went down in 2015, the French authorities painstakingly matched every human fragment with a victim. But that was a more recent accident in a more accessible location. The older dead receive no such courtesy. The body we found would end up in a mass grave down the valley.

Much later, I asked de Souza, the son of the Indian pilot, how he felt about the discovery of the body. Did he think the French should try to identify it? “I could easily do a swab,” he replied. “If someone said, ‘Oh, by the way, would you like to do it,’ I’d say, ‘Yes’.”