September 21st, 2001. It was one of those perfect autumn days we often get in SW France. I was strolling down the avenue near my home enjoying the crisp air and the blue sky. Abruptly, several things happened: there was a loud boom, the ground shook, the air vibrated, a shop-window shattered, and a woman started wailing.
The world was still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attack in the USA only ten days earlier. Images of those collapsing towers had been on constant TV replay. Around me, fearful voices arose – a plane? a sonic boom? Or…someone gasped, and pointed. To the south of the city, an orange cloud was rising into the air. A clamour of sirens broke out, prompting us to move.
The phone was ringing as I got back to my flat. A Parisian friend, working in aviation security, issued instructions: stay indoors, close all windows, put wet towels round the edges, wait for more information.
The explosion, which occurred at 10.17 a.m. in a suburb south of Toulouse, originated at the chemical fertiliser plant, AZF on the outskirts of the city. As 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated, the sound was heard 80 km away, causing a shock wave of 3.4 on the Richter scale. Hangar 221, where the product was stored, had vanished, replaced by a crater measuring 70 x40 metres, 6 metres deep.
It was pre-smart phone, pre-social media era. Those not in the vicinity of the blast, unsure of what had happened, were seized by panic, streaming out of offices and factories, racing to pick up terrified children from school, trying to contact friends and family. Roads were gridlocked and there was a fearful pulsation in the air, a hubbub of voices, car horns, strident sirens of emergency vehicles. The orange cloud hovered over the city as people choked and coughed, trying to protect their faces.
Information trickled in via TV and radio. The shocked inhabitants of France’s ‘pink city’ were confronted with the grim statistics: 31 dead, 2500 injured, damage extending to a radius of 3 km, an entire neighbourhood – homes, schools, vehicles, public buildings – reduced to rubble. The adjacent ring road showed apocalyptic scenes, cars overturned, drivers covered in blood staggering through the haze. Eighteen months later, 14 000 people were still being treated for PTSD and depression.
The catastrophe, overshadowed by that of 9/11, barely made the front pages in the anglophone press and was scarcely mentioned again last month in relation to the similar, more deadly, blast (800 tonnes) that hit Beirut. For those in Occitania, watching the news from Lebanon and hearing the demands for answers, bitter memories resurfaced. It had taken a Jarndyce and Jarndyce of an affair lasting 18 years to produce answers to what had happened in Toulouse, and even then many were not satisfied.
Things got off to a bad start. Only three days after the explosion, before the inquiry had officially opened, Public Prosecutor Michel Bréard dismissed the idea of a terrorist attack, telling the press it was ‘90 percent certain’ that the explosion was ‘due to an accident’- words which provoked an outcry from the media and the Mayor of Toulouse, Philippe Douste-Blazy. As the weeks passed, rumours began to fly: an electrical short-circuit? A missile? A gas explosion? A meteorite? Leaked results of an autopsy carried out on a Tunisian worker found dead at the scene pointed to a possible terrorist link. According to the medical examiner, the man had been wearing several layers of undergarments beneath his overalls, a characteristic associated with Islamic jihad. This hypothesis (which became known as ‘les 4 slips’ -the 4 pairs of underpants) gained traction after it emerged that, prior to the explosion, the worker had been involved in heated arguments between different groups over the display of an American flag in one of the lorries on site.
By December 2001, however, the official hypothesis was that the explosion had been caused by an accidental mixture of another chemical, sodium dichloroisocyanurate (DccNA), a chlorine-based product used in swimming pools, with the down-graded ammonium nitrate. This was set out in a 700- page report published in May 2006, demonstrating how the two products had come into contact as shown here and supposedly putting an end to rumours and drawing a line under the affair.
The case-the biggest of its kind in French history-finally came to court in February 2009 amid intense media scrutiny and high public emotion. In order to accommodate the 2700 civil plaintiffs, 60-odd lawyers, dozens of witnesses, not to mention bailiffs, police, firemen, emergency services, and 273 journalists, proceedings were held at an extraordinary venue, the Salle Municipale Jean Mermoz, capable of seating 1000 people. At the demand of the plaintiffs, who did not all see eye to eye, the events were filmed.
On the bench of the accused was Grande Paroisse, a subsidiary of oil giant Total, in charge of operations at the plant, along with former manager, Serge Biechlin. From the outset, controversies and contradictions bedevilled the proceedings. The prosecution’s case hinged on the theory set out in the report: an industrial accident caused by poor waste management. A witness testified that, shortly before the blast, a lorry carrying waste materials from Hangar 335 had been unloaded at the entrance to Hangar 221. A scientific expert, Didier Bergues, confirmed the lethal potential of a combination of the chlorine product with ammonium nitrate. But a reconstruction carried out at the site cast doubt on this hypothesis. The chlorine had been stored 900 metres away from Hangar 221 and its strong, distinctive smell would have alerted anyone moving it by mistake to the wrong building. Other scientific experts called by the defence disagreed with the prosecution’s experts. ‘We are all in agreement to say that we disagree with the ‘accident’ theory,’ said one.
Another troubling factor was the ‘double bang’ phenomenon. Witnesses were adamant they had heard two distinct explosions, backed up by recordings on seismological equipment. Two independent analyses were carried out, leading to different conclusions, with one explaining the second bang as an echo of the first. But doubts lingered.
After 4 months of deliberations, the judges ruled that it was impossible to state with any certainty that the explosion had been caused by incorrect storage of the chemicals. Serge Biechlin, Grande Paroisse and Total were cleared of all charges, provoking howls of outrage from the victims. The Parquet (Prosecutor’s Office) immediately appealed, and the case was brought before the Toulouse Appeals Court in 2012. The judge, dismissing calls to rule against Total, nevertheless found the two defendants guilty of ‘involuntarily causing death, through carelessness, inattentiveness, negligence, breach of security obligations or outright error.’ Biechlin was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment with two suspended, while Grande Paroisse was fined 225 000 euros. But doubt cast on the impartiality of one of the expert witnesses resulted in a successful counter-appeal by the defence in January 2015.The case was heard again, this time in Paris in October 2017, and again, the defendants were found guilty, leading to yet another appeal.
Finally, in December 2019, the Paris Cassation Court upheld the October 2017 verdict, thus ‘closing the door’ on a long-running judicial saga. Serge Biechlin was given a 15-month suspended sentence for manslaughter while Grande Paroisse was ordered to pay 225 000 euros in damages. In the meantime, Total, while not admitting responsibility, had paid out millions of euros in compensation. By this time, some of the plaintiffs had died; others were left ill, exhausted and demoralised. While some victim associations declared themselves satisfied that justice had been done, others, like the Association Mémoire et Solidarité, regrouping former AZF employees, believe the responsibility of Total should have been legally recognised. For many investigative journalists and writers the affair is still troubling: numerous books and articles have been written on the subject over the years. And, for many who survived , life will never be the same.
In this video from La Dépêche du Midi today, Catherin Salaün describes how her life changed for ever. Catherine was in the street on the day of the explosion. Knocked unconscious by the blast, she came to her senses to discover she could no longer hear.
‘I lost my hearing, but not just that: I lost the person I was, my self-confidence, my social life, my job, everything. I’m alive, thank God. But at what price?’
The door may have ‘closed’ in legal terms, but for many: ‘on ne peut pas oublier‘ – it’s impossible to forget.
©Laurette Long 21 September 2020
16 thoughts on “September 21st 2001: The Day Toulouse Can’t Forget”
This is ” citizen journalism ” at its best – no wonder established print/media organisations wouldn’t publish your ” inconvenient truth ” after your well researched and well written expose .
We had little response in the UK after the original incident – a bit like the “missing ” discussion of the more recent Beirut explosion in the British press – you need to listen to the BBC World Service vers 0400 hrs to get anymore detailed information about these troubling world events ,
Thank you Peter T for such warm words, your comments as always much appreciated, also the tip- if ever I’m awake at 4 a.m. I’ll tune in to the World Service 😉 Haven’t checked the UK press today, but yesterday, when all of France was in shock, and every French newspaper had banner headlines about Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded by an Islamic terrorist, I could find nothing on the front page print versions of UK press except for The Telegraph, then a long front-page article in the on-line Daily Mail. What’s the quote, ‘fog in Channel, Continent cut off’? ;-(
What a tragic story. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for following Pamela, and reading this article, tragic indeed, and a reminder of your motto for those of us able to enjoy happier circumstances – La Vita è Bella! xx
Insightful, interesting and informative, what an awful story to read. Thoughts with everyone who was harmed, affected or part of this day. May you all find peace one day and be comforted that you are not forgotten.
Ma chère Paula, thank you so much for your compassionate words for the victims, yes it’s an awful story, you know I prefer to write about more cheerful subjects but felt I had to mark the day, remembrance is so important, as you say. We missed you this year stay safe and wellxx
I remember well the AZF explosion. Unfortunately for those that suffered the blast and were injured is the incredible chance as well that Toulouse had…as at 10.17am the rush hour on the rocade was over and so many people were not in their homes near by. If not the casualties and fatalities would have been catastrophic.
Yes Laurette, I agree for me it was not an accident…but no no one can prove that otherwise. Afterwards for sure, to put any chemical plant so close to populations is in itself not the finest masterstoke of urban planning for which Toulouse is so lacking….
Hi Paul, welcome to the blog and thanks for that extremely pertinent comment – yes, what would the ring road have been like two hours earlier??? I’m guessing you were maybe on it. And of course the surrounding houses and flats full of families getting ready for work and school. As a Toulousain of course you’ll know all about the controversy over the ‘accident’ theory. And as for the urban planning…but as many have pointed out, why were more draconian regulations about storage for this potentially lethal chemical not made mandatory? Wikipedia has a list of all the explosions linked to it – staggering.
Thank you, again, for educating me on things I probably wouldn’t have ever learned. I didn’t know about this and it’s such a shame it took so long for court proceedings. But aside from that, you can’t help but wonder if it was a case of terrorism and these men convicted were the scapegoats for a government coverup. It’s a troubling world.
Thank you for such an informative piece.
Thank you chère Denise xx. There are just too many things in the world we don’t know about – even with the internet etc . I’m plunged into French history at the moment, and can’t believe how little I know, even after living here so long. We need several lives… Yes, the AZF affair has definitely left doubts and as I mention there have been books written about it – not translated in English however, so again, I’m realising just how much of a handicap it is for a country which doesn’t use the English language to get its voice heard – do you feel the same thing about Germany? Good job there are bloggers like us to keep everyone on their toes, n’est-ce pas? 😉 For readers interested in the upcoming US elections Denise has a great piece on her blog: https://authordenisebaer.com/the-2020-geriatric-elections-its-time-for-a-political-movement
Laurette, Thank you so much for sharing my blog. Living in Germany, I think I feel that the world only gets invited to see what the U.S. liberals and conservatives want them to see. You’d be surprised how many things are being put on the back burner with algorithms, and what some of the propaganda sites (that’s what I refer to so-called media) refuse to share.
Here’s a link regarding U.S. bias, but of course, it includes the left and right bias: https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart
Yes, keep educating me on things I’ve been clueless about. Thanks so much, and if you ever want, I’d love for you to write a guest blog post about whatever you want. *wink, wink*
Thanks Denise – ‘propaganda sites’, love it 😉 Great to have your German/US perspective, it’s quite an eye-opener, isn’t it, to be an ex-pat and compare differences. Going to check out your link. A guest blog post? I’d love it! But like before – you’d have to give me some pointers, all my great ideas vanish when people ask me to talk about them (wink wink)!
I am ashamed to admit Laurettte that this rang very few bells with me. I wonder for what reasons was it so under reported? No wonder conspiracy theories exist. Was any conclusion reached about the Tunisian guy with all the superfluous underpants? What a terrible tragedy and how unsurprising that the more recent explosion in Beirut brought back such awful memories. Thanks for reminding us of the events of 21/09/2001.
Many thanks for your comment, faithful as always chère Elizabethxx. Yes, it was under-reported, it’s a scandal, but of course the media in the Anglo Saxon world is as politically slanted as anywhere else. The Tunisian…there were dozens of reportages, an investigation which remained unsatisfactory for many – if you look on Amazon, you’ll see the books that were written ‘par la suite’…some by people who were closely involved/ good investigative reporters – but in French! Sometimes I get very frustrated to think my adoptive country is side-lined all because of linguistics:-(
Wow, Laurette…thanks for reminding me. I have little recollection of this event, although it does ring some distant bells in the back of my mind. You’re right, of course, that 9/11 overshadowed everything for a very long time, and especially anything else that happened in 2001. What an amazing saga of litigation and even more amazing that no definitive conclusion on the cause has ever been determined. Thanks again for bringing this back into focus.
Thanks so much chère Nancy xx, now, I’m trying to remember where you were at that date. It’s true that 9/11 was THE headline, for obvious and very legitimate reasons. But AZF is a huge wound for the citizens of la ville rose, to which you are very attached, and of course now that a ‘verdict’ has been given (what a saga, as you say) you wonder, is it all going to fade into the background, a ‘blip’ in history, like so many other ‘blips’, except for those who were involved either directly or through friends and family? Closing the door, or sweeping under the carpet…