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Liner gangway collapse toll now 15

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A woman takes flowers to the chapel of rest at the shipyard Sunday.

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PARIS, France (CNN) -- Relatives have been making the grim journey to a chapel of rest at the shipyard at Saint-Nazaire, France, to identify bodies as the toll from the Queen Mary 2 gangway collapse was put at 15.

Later Sunday French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited the shipyard where the 15 died and 31 others were injured -- many of them children -- in Saturday's tragedy.

"I would like to express to the victims, their families, every compassion and solidarity, every esteem and all the sadness which I express on behalf of all French people, I am sure," Chirac said.

Flags flew at half-staff throughout the industrial port city as residents mourned those who died after a 45-feet plunge on to a cement platform while beginning a tour of the world's biggest passenger ship.

Workers and their families were visiting the construction site ahead of completion of the ocean liner when the accident happened.

Earlier Sunday police and the French engineering company Alstom, which owns the shipyard, said the death toll had risen from 13 Saturday to 16.

Later police said the figure was 15, without giving explanation for the change.

A judicial investigation is under way, and charges of involuntary manslaughter may ultimately be filed, though it was not clear against whom, police said.

The dockside gangway leading into the Queen Mary 2 -- "collapsed as up to 50 visitors were walking onto the liner," said Jean Marc Falcone, a regional official.

Queen Mary II
The QM2 is almost finished and had been to sea twice for sea trials.

Ten of the injured were in critical condition, said Joel Batteux, mayor of the town in western France where the ship, the world's largest ocean liner, is in its final stages of construction.

"I was going to work and suddenly the gangway collapsed and we fell down," said Jason Schmitt, who was on his way to his first day on the job. His mother, who had planned to join the public tour of the ship, accompanied him.

"I fell with at least 30 other persons. There were many dead and many injured too. But as soon as I saw that I could walk, I went to rescue my mother right away. There also were other people who were saved by rescuers."

"It's really a tragedy, no one expected such thing to happen," said Christian Duval, a union official. "We are very shaken today to see workers and visitors who came to the shipyards to see such a beautiful ship and die."

Immediately after the accident occurred at the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard, a "plan rouge," or "red plan," was put into effect to coordinate the rescue efforts, Falcone said.

"That pride and joy turned into a tragedy within seconds," said Philippe Bouquet-Naudad, human resources director at Chantiers de l'Atlantique. "It's truly a terrible feeling and something we can't understand for now, but I'm sure the investigation will provide an explanation."

The ship, owned by the Cunard Line, recently completed a series of sea trials off the Brittany coast.

"On behalf of all of us at Cunard, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those who are killed or injured in this tragic accident, and our thoughts and prayers are with their friends and relatives at this time of sorrow," said Pamela Conover, the line's president and chief operating officer, in a statement.

According to Cunard, the luxury cruise liner -- dubbed QM2 for short -- is the largest, longest, tallest, widest and grandest ocean liner ever built.

The $800 million, 150,000-ton vessel can carry 2,620 passengers and 1,253 crew members. The ship features a planetarium, 22 elevators and the world's largest floating library. Its top speed is 34.5 mph.

At 1,132 feet in length, it is 113 feet longer than the original Queen Mary and 166 feet longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall (986 feet).

The ship is due to be handed over to Cunard shortly before Christmas.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is then due to name Queen Mary 2 at a ceremony at Southampton, England on January 8, 2004.

Earlier this month, the ship underwent two rounds of offshore trials ahead of its maiden voyage in January.

On Monday, January 12, Queen Mary 2 is scheduled to embark on the 14 day maiden sailing from Southampton to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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