– Susannah Hickling
“Come on, We’ve got to get out of here now”, Serge urged his partner Celine. Flood water that had poured into their little terraced home was already 30 centimetres deep and rising. The couple had lifted the sofa onto the dining table and stacked as many other possessions as they could out of the reach of the filthy water. It was 2:15 pm on Monday, September 22, 2003 and the small town of Lunel in southern France had been battered by violent storms since mid-morning.
Council worker Serge, 43 and 32-year old Celine, a home help, had lived most of their lives in Lunel which stands only a few metres above sea level. The flat, marshy area, floods frequently. This was the second time in just over a year that the couple had found the home invaded by water.
Serge and Celine stepped out into the street, now a fast-flowing thigh-high river. They waded across the road and Celine stepped over a low hedge which separated the street from the pavement. Serge was following close behind when he saw Celine fall. In an instant she had disappeared below the water.
She’s dead, he thought. It’s all over. All they’ll find is her body later. Celine felt herself being pulled under the water. Instinctively, she reached up for Serge’s hand. She felt his grasp but her relief was short-lived as his hand slipped away.
She couldn’t understand what was happening. She was being swept along underwater, helpless and swallowing mouthfuls of the filthy liquid. She couldn’t breathe. “I’m going to die”, she thought. “I’m drowning. There’s no way I can survive this”. Then she found that she could breathe again. In the dim light, she could see that she was about ten metres from the manhole through which she had plunged, but the current made it impossible to swim back.
She was in a two-metre wide concrete storm drain which was almost completely filled with water and it was still rising. Across the drain stretched a small plastic pipe. Further on, the tunnel was completely black.
“I’ve got to try to grab that pipe”, Celine thought. “I’ve got to keep myself as high out of the water as I can”.