Requesens. The path continues to climb and then starts to descend slowly on a dirt track hugging the flanks of the mountain. Burning under the sun, I am not paying much attention when a sudden gust of wind blows in from nowhere and then stops just as abruptly. From somewhere nearby comes the sound of a bell tolling, an implausible clang in the middle of the forest. Then another gust arrives and it repeats, as if the bell is swinging in the wind: a dull thud accompanied by a mechanical squeaking, it must be cracked. I walk along looking into the trees, trying to identify the source. Then I see it, just a few paces from the path: the tail section of an aircraft sticking out of the steep hillside. The rudder is flapping uselessly from side to side, knocking on its hinges. Although the wreckage is held in place by spindly holm oaks and must have been here for some time the red, blue and white paint is still visible.
I scramble up past more scraps of fuselage to see if there is a better view of it from the ridge. Only 30m higher and the aircraft would have made it. On the way back down I find the engine: intermeshing cogs, rusty exhaust pipes, and the shafts of three propeller blades. Nearby a plaque explains, in French
Jack Le Bel
on board their aircraft
fighting the fire
19 July 1986
I’m not likely to forget. The skin of the aircraft and its entrails are imprinted in my mind. The broken bodies of the victims have just been extracted and the crash investigators have just finished their job but the pungent smell of the fire is still present in everybody’s nostrils. The last officials due on the scene, the scrap merchant undertakers coming for the dead machinery, will arrive at any moment.
But when they came they didn’t finish the job, and now 30 years later the forest has narrowly escaped another fire. It seems indecent: I have intruded on the funeral of a stranger.
But not everybody feels the same way. Some of the passers-by have etched their name into the tail fin. Not just a few but hundreds of them, some adding the date of their ephemeral visit. To the extent that the entire horizontal stabiliser is covered in names; dense multi-layered graffiti. And not just names. For some it was an opportunity to declare their passion. M+M enclosed their love in a heart in 94, Manolo and Laura were here together, O♥T.
Back on the Senda a second plaque also records the event for the benefit of Catalan speakers, adding that the fire razed a total of 30,000ha. This time ‘only’ 15,000ha (150km2) was burnt.