Survivors recall tragic car crash in France with Romney at the wheel
The car Mitt Romney was driving, a Citroen DS, was hit head-on by a Mercedes driven by a Catholic priest. Romney's car was totaled, and all six occupants were injured, one fatally. (Photo / Andre Salarnier)
BERNOS-BEAULAC, France --The mission car was packed that day.
The president of the Mormon mission to France, H. Duane Anderson, was eager to get out to visit congregations after a difficult May in which travel in France had been severely limited because a general strike had caused a gasoline shortage.
A dispute had developed in the small Mormon congregation in Pau, in southern France, and Anderson thought he should pay a call. So he took his wife and two missionaries along, and on the way they picked up a French Mormon couple in Bordeaux.
There were six people in a car that would comfortably seat five, but otherwise it was an ordinary drive that happened to turn tragic.
On the way back from Pau, the car was hit head-on and Anderson's wife, Leola, was killed.
Anderson's driver, a 21-year-old missionary named Mitt Romney, is now a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States, with the June 16, 1968, accident one of his rare dark moments.
Romney, who was seriously injured in the crash and was momentarily feared dead, has long said there was nothing he could have done to avoid the tragedy. Interviews with survivors and people who were directly involved in the accident's aftermath largely confirm his description.
"Mitt was not in any way at fault,'' said Richard B. "Andy" Anderson, a son of Leola Anderson, who at the time of the accident was 27, attending graduate school at Harvard and living in Belmont. Anderson, who now lives in Kaysville, Utah, said he has gotten to know Romney in a variety of church roles over the years, and considers him to be a friend. "If I had any reason to think he was in the slightest degree at fault ..."
The accident took place on a curving, two-lane highway in southern France in an area that, at the time, was rife with car crashes. In fact, Romney had passed another car accident on the same road, just before the collision. And France at the time was a notoriously dangerous place to drive.
The driver of the car that hit Romney, according to an account in a local newspaper at the time, was a 46-year-old man, Albert Marie, from Sireuil. Marie, according to French Mormons who responded to the accident, was a Catholic priest; in an interview this spring, a priest at the parish in Sireuil confirmed that the church's former pastor, now deceased, was Albert Marie. Many of the Mormons familiar with the accident say they believe that the priest was inebriated at the time of the crash but that assertion could not be confirmed. The priest was traveling with his mother, Marie-Antoinette Marie, and a 48-year-old woman, Marguerite Longué, neither of whom could be located.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Mormonism is formally known, had had a variety of run-ins with the French government over the previous century, and did not pursue any civil action after the accident, fearful of a confrontation with either the Catholic Church or the French government.
"Duane Anderson refused to press charges because he didn't want there to be difficulties between the two churches,'' said Andre Salarnier, a French Mormon who now lives in the village of St. Pierre de Plesguen, Brittany, but who in 1968 was living in Bordeaux and rushed to the hospital after the accident to help. The Romney party had dined at the Salarnier home the evening before the accident.
In one of three recent interviews about the accident, Romney said he believes there was a criminal proceeding against Marie, and that he recalls filling out an affidavit about the accident. His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said in an e-mail, "the governor does not have any records from the court case against the driver who caused the accident in France." At the local police station in Bazas, officials said they do not have any records because they routinely destroy all documents after 10 years.
The trip to Pau began in Paris, where the Andersons, known to Mormons by the titles "president" and "sister,'' got into the Citroen DS, the best of several cars owned by the French mission. Some of the missionaries, including Romney, had thought Anderson should drive a Mercedes, which was considered a better car, but Anderson had wanted to use a car made in the country of the mission, and the DS was the best French car on the market at the time.
The couple had Romney, who had just moved into the grand manse in Paris that served as the mission headquarters and was Duane Anderson's junior assistant, serve as their driver. They also brought a second staffer, David L. Wood, a 21-year-old from Salt Lake City who was serving as mission coordinator.
The Paris foursome stopped in Bordeaux on the way south to pick up a French Mormon couple, Bertin and Suzanne Farel. Bertin Farel was the president of the Bordeaux district for the Mormon church, with oversight responsibility for a variety of church branches in the region.
On the drive south from Bordeaux to Pau, Suzanne Farel rode in the middle of the front seat; passengers have conflicting recollections about whether the car had a bench seat or a console between two bucket seats. On the drive back north, the two women in the car switched positions; Leola Anderson was sitting up front between Romney and Duane Anderson, with the Farels and Wood in the back.
As they passed through the village of Bernos-Beaulac, in the midst of a verdant landscape known for its fine vineyards, they happened upon a car accident, with police still at the scene, in which a 34-year-old man had lost control of his vehicle and smashed into a tree, according to an article at the time in a regional newspaper, Sud-Ouest. The Romney party pulled over to remove a roof rack from the highway, and then resumed its journey.
"We were all talking about how dangerous how the highways were and the French highways, as you know, have the trees that line the road, and we were all talking about how dangerous that was,'' Romney said. "And literally as we were having that conversation, boom, we were hit.''
The accident, according to the Sud-Ouest article, took place in front of the post office on the north side of the village, which is sometimes referred to as Beaulac.
"We were driving, as I recall, through a curvy section of road where the speed limit is very low - I can't remember what it is, but a very low speed limit - and suddenly there was a car in my lane that appeared so quickly around the corner or over the hill, I just don't recall the topography terribly well at this stage, but it happened so quickly that, as I recall, there was no braking and no honking - it was like immediate,'' Romney said. "My understanding was he ... had been passing a truck and the truck driver said he estimated his speed at about 120 kilometers, which is about 70 miles per hour. And so we had an immediate head-to-head kind of collision.''
The road has been significantly improved since the accident, but it still curves in front of the post office; it is lined with large trees and one can see that it would be possible for a southbound driver to miss the curve and cross into the northbound lane.
Of the six people in Romney's car, three are still alive - Romney, Wood, and Suzanne Farel. The three said they have not communicated over the last four decades, but in separate interviews, all three offered similar accounts of the crash.
"We were leaving the village, we were going pretty slowly, and there was a little hill and a turn to the left, and a car was coming from in front, and we didn't have time to realize, it crossed the road, and we hit - it missed its turn,'' recalled Suzanne Farel during an interview at her home in Bordeaux. "My husband was the only one that got out of the car, and he went to get help.''
Wood, now an instructor of French and Latin at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches, La., offered a similar description, although he noted that both he and Romney had been knocked unconscious in the crash so their memories of the moment of impact is weak.
Wood said he believes he received a settlement from the Mercedes driver after the accident; Romney has no such recollection.
Wood said Romney was a cautious driver.
"We were conservative - he was below the speed limit,'' Wood said. Wood also noted, in response to a question, that Mormons are prohibited from consuming alcohol, and said no one in their vehicle had been drinking.
Romney, asked whether he was obeying the speed limit, said, "Oh yeah, I was probably going less than the speed limit, so far as I know."
Photographs of the vehicles, obtained from the Salarniers and the Farels, are consistent with a head-on crash, showing that the front ends of both cars are smashed in.
Only Bertin Farel was able to walk away and call for help; Romney said he had to be pried out of the car - he was so seriously injured that the police officer who first responded believed him to be dead and wrote "Il est mort'' - he is dead - in Romney's passport.
The injured were transported by ambulance to a hospital in nearby Bazas, a small town famous for a grand medieval cathedral and for a local breed of choice cattle.
Word of the accident spread quickly through the Mormon world, and help began arriving within hours.
Under instructions relayed to Paris from Salt Lake City, missionaries Joel H. McKinnon, who was the senior assistant to Anderson, and Byron W. Hansen, who was the mission secretary, responded immediately. They left Paris at midnight and drove through the rain, arriving in Bazas at 8:30 a.m. the day after the accident, according to Hansen's journal entry, which begins, "tragedy struck last night.''
Hansen, now a Chevrolet dealer in Brigham City, Utah, recalled that "when we initially arrived, they thought Mitt had been killed - the nurses told us that was the initial report.'' McKinnon, now a mission president in Montreal, recalls that the young men had to inform Anderson that his wife had died; the doctors had declined to do so.
From Bordeaux, the Salarniers rushed to the scene.
Meantime, in Michigan, Romney's father, Governor George Romney, called on his son-in-law, Bruce H. Robinson, a medical resident then married to Mitt's sister, to fly to France and oversee the medical care.
"I was making rounds that afternoon in Michigan, and George Romney called me, and said, 'Mitt's been in a fatal car crash; he's survived so far, but we don't know the extent of his injuries,' '' said Robinson, who now lives in Idaho. Robinson drove straight to the airport and flew through the night to Paris, and then to Bordeaux, arriving June 18.
"Mitt was just coming out of his coma, but his face was all swollen, his eye was almost shut, and one arm was fractured,'' Robinson said. "We didn't have CT scans or MRIs in those days, but we got what tests we could to show that he was OK, and that he was certainly going to survive, although he probably came within a hair of not surviving.''
But Robinson said Romney recovered quickly without surgery, benefiting in part from his youth and general good health.
Anderson had a tougher recovery; Robinson recalls that he had a crushed chest, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, and injuries to his liver and spleen. The church, Robinson said, rented a private train car to transport Anderson back to Paris on June 20, and the next day Robinson flew with Anderson back to Los Angeles for the burial of his wife in San Bernardino and for his own medical treatment. Anderson died in 1995.
Romney threw himself into work, and his fellow missionaries said they were struck by his resilience. But Romney says the accident affected him deeply - he recalls sobbing on his return to Paris when watching Anderson realize his wife was really gone - and says he talked about the accident repeatedly with his family.
"I was frightened of driving a car, or being in a car, and had a sense of vulnerability, that I had not experienced before,'' Romney said. His fear was described in a letter that his assistant at the mission home, Bill Ryan, wrote to his family in fall 1968; Ryan, who had been in an earlier accident himself in France, wrote of Romney, "He is as scared, if not more so, than I am of driving in France.''
The missionaries apparently had good reason for concern. In December 1968, they were in another accident, in which the Peugeot Romney was driving through Le Mons was hit from behind by a dump truck.
"I looked in the rearview mirror, and there was a garbage truck coming quickly behind us, with people in the front seat, all laughing and talking, and it was a snowy day,'' Romney said. "He ... slammed into the back of my vehicle, which caused it to slam into the car in front of us, and they kept going - bang, bang, bang, bang!"
No one was seriously injured, but Ryan, now a retired assistant US attorney in Utah, said Romney, who would return to the United States a few weeks later, had had it with French roads.
"Elder Romney is glad not to have to drive anymore,'' Ryan wrote.
Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondent Julie Chazyn contributed to this report from France.