This Tuesday morning at 10:17 am, the Pink City will commemorate the tragedy of September 21, 2001, when 31 of its family lost their lives and thousands of others were injured by the explosion of the petrochemical plant. Half of Toulouse is that day reduced to a state of chaos, its inhabitants are in a state of shock.
This Tuesday morning, at 10:17 am, Toulouse will freeze, twenty years after the death of 31 people in what remains the most appalling industrial disaster of the post-war period, in France. Ten days after the September 11 attacks in the United States. Story of this day which traumatized the Pink City, left several thousand wounded beyond the 31 dead that three ceremonies pay tribute today.
- Friday September 21, 2001, 9 a.m., Paris
Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic and his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin make a final point, before going to Brussels. Europe will take a stand after the New York attacks. In this period of cohabitation, the two men are on the same wavelength: absolute firmness against terrorism, without insulting the Arab-Muslim world. The program will explode.
The employee of an AZF subcontractor swept hangar 335. He loads a pile of white dust into a dumpster. He thinks it is nitrates. Did he pick up chlorine? He did not see a bag of chlorine, he swears to investigators. However, sachets of chlorinated products passed through this hangar …
The employee asks his supervisor what he does with the contents of the dumpster. “Is that nitrate?” “Yes”, replies the employee. “So you put it with the decommissioned nitrates in hangar 221.” The scenario retained by justice is that there was also chlorine in this dumpster. This is what constituted the explosive “sandwich” in the box of hangar 221. The dumpster in question has never been found.
- 10:17 a.m., AZF and Toulouse factory
An explosion destroys the factory and devastates half of Toulouse. The 300 tonnes of nitrates in hangar 221 have just been blown up. Thousands of cubic meters of earth, torn from the crater, form a gigantic brown cloud. The shock is recorded on seismographs hundreds of kilometers away. 3.4 on the Richter scale. About thirty people were killed instantly in the factory.
- 10:20 a.m., southern ring road
Motorists are gradually getting out of their cars. They have a glimpse of a flash, then the cloud. Their vehicle was thrown into the air, before crashing into the asphalt. In front of them, the apocalyptic spectacle of a totally devastated factory.
In the surrounding area, shops have been blown up. In one of them, a client was killed. There are a lot of injured people. The bus depot was shattered. The walking mental hospital was pierced by the shock wave. At Gallieni high school, a piece of sheet metal torn off at the factory fell on a high school student. Killed instantly.
- 10:20 a.m., at AZF and SNPE
Employees of the two factories close the valves of the most dangerous products, such as phosgene, at SNPE. This very toxic gas had been used during the 1914-18 war as a combat gas. A leak could cause hundreds or even thousands of deaths.
There is no longer a single window in most of the major arteries in the south of Toulouse. Everyone thinks of an attack. The phone no longer works. It’s chaos.
In a school in this working-class neighborhood, the children start running in the playground. There are screams and tears. We confine in the toilets… We put wet handkerchiefs on our noses. In the surrounding cities, there are no more windows, no more electricity.
The ring road is blocked by vehicles chewed up by the explosion. Thousands of Toulouse seek to flee. The metro is stopped. We fear the cloud, the gases, the phosgene of the Poudrerie.
The first information begins to fall. The state is on alert.
It’s a city of zombies. In a dust that sticks to skin and clothing, dozens of disaster victims roam the streets. Their faces are bleeding, cuts caused by falling windows. They wander, sometimes without but. Eardrums are smashed, Toulouse will become a city of the deaf.
There is nothing left around what used to be hangar 221, but a huge crater. The factory is a field of ruins, as if ravaged by a bombardment. In a chaos of twisted beams, crumpled sheets and rubble, the survivors help each other. Over the minutes, the firefighters, the doctors arrive and take over.
The cloud fell in a fine brown rain. “It’s acid sludge!” “It’s carcinogenic!” “It is a toxic product, it is important not to breathe it!” In the southern zone, this downpour traps the inhabitants. The cloud, made up of the reflected earth, but also nitrogen oxide and ammonia, irritated the throat and nose. No serious injury.
Forty-three minutes after the explosion, the red plane is up to value. All the emergency services are on the war footing. The head of the Samu, Prof. Virenque, was to Paris, he took the first plane to return to direct the emergency services. The mayor of Toulouse, also a doctor, Philippe Douste-Blazy coordinates the maneuvers.
- 12 noon, at the “crime scene”
At the end of the morning, the public prosecutor seized with the regional service of judicial police of Toulouse to carry out the investigation. The boss of the PJ, Commissioner Marcel Dumas, and his deputy, Commissioner Robert Saby, land in the still smoking rubble. First, they are amazed at the extent of the damage. Then, they are furious: on their “crime scene”, everyone walks, firefighters, rescuers, gendarmes, employees, electricians, journalists …
The more so as in the evening, and without notifying the PJ, the internal commission of inquiry of Total will go on the spot to carry out its own investigations until hangar 335: and if the accursed mixture chlorine-nitrate had been born in this place precise ?
The first images are broadcast on television news. Wounded in the dust of the ring road, close-up on the massive destruction, the first bloody and stunned testimonies and the first questions about the origin of the disaster.
President Chirac gets out of the official car, clearly stunned. He is accompanied by the mayor of Toulouse, Philippe Douste-Blazy. Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac will cautiously discuss the accident thesis.
The city’s hospitals are overwhelmed. Clinics come to the rescue for emergencies that cannot be experienced elsewhere.
Finally, the hospitals in the cities of the region, Carcassonne and Albi, are opening their services to the wounded.
Daniel Van Schendel has just returned urgently from the Bayonne courthouse. This pyrotechnic specialist intervenes with the courts in cases of fires or explosions. He is the very first expert to visit the site. A long, very long investigation begins.
The city is counting its dead. Almost thirty. Wounded, by the hundreds. Damage ? There will be billions of francs …
(SOURCE: LA DEPECHE DU MIDI)