September 21st 2001: The Day Toulouse Can’t Forget


Memorial to the victims of the AZF explosion 2001. Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons, Author Kurema Sakura

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.

The site of the explosion
Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons City of Toulouse Archives

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 first day of the 2009 court proceedings in Toulouse (courtesy archives)

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.

The ring road around Toulouse minutes after the explosion. Courtesy archives

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.

Numerous press articles and books have been published over the years

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.

‘On ne peut pas oublier’
La Dépêche du Midi 21 September 2020

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