Explosion at Orly

Ann Uhry Abrams

Explosion at Orly: The Disaster that Transformed Atlanta

On June, 3, 1962, an Air France chartered jet carrying 122 passengers (106 of whom lived in Atlanta) and a crew of 10 had crashed at approximately 12:30 p.m., Paris time. It was the largest number of people killed in a single plane crash up to that date.  On board were returning passengers from a three-week trip to Europe sponsored by the Atlanta Art Association. Some had been on an escorted tour, that began and ended in Paris and visited London, Amsterdam, Lucerne, Venice, Florence, and Rome.  Others had taken advantage of the inexpensive charter fare but chose to travel independently.  

Witnesses in the airport saw the 140 ton jet taxi down the runway and elevate about six feet into the air then jerk like a bullet back onto the runway.  “It did not seem to leave the ground,” said an airport mechanic.  The fuselage convulsed in severe jolts.  The nose plunged downward.  Within seconds, it veered drunkenly across the runway, smashed through a low wooden fence, listed to the left, and plowed into a clump of trees.  Sixty-three tons of jet fuel roared through the fuselage.  Almost instantly, the charter plane blasted apart and was transformed into a thundering inferno. 


Explosion at Orly is a thorough exploration of that tragedy and its impact on the city that lost so many of its leading citizens.  To set the stage, the book begins with a view of the culture and politics of Atlanta at a time when segregation reigned and Martin Luther King was beginning his campaign to confront racial inequalities.  Culturally, Atlanta was still a wasteland and the tour of Europe of leading members of the artistic and musical community was envisioned as a way to expand awareness of Atlanta's cultural potential.   Explosion at Orly explores the lives of the doomed passengers and tells of their roles as guiding lights of the community.  It traces their progress through Europe and tells about the lives of the bereft families, shocked and devastated by their losses.  As a memorial, Atlanta raised funds to build a must-needed cultural center, which today is the home of the world famous High Museum of Art, The Atlanta Symphony, and the Alliance Center.