The day that rocked Toulouse

Ten years ago today.

The week before, 4 planes crashed in the USA and everything became rather weird and surreal. When the first plane hit the first tower, I was at work in Toulouse, France. We stood around each other’s screens, watching the news feeds going mad and wondering what the hell was going on.

That was the week before. On September 21st, at 10:17am, something went bang. It was a weird bang, like something big landing on the flimsy tin roof above us, or a giant firecracker going off in the car park. Heads rose from screens, bemused looks were exchanged. The office rumor mill started turning slowly. We walked around, looking out of the windows, checking the office. One ceiling panel had fallen down, but given the state of the offices, that could have just come from a rat’s fart.

The first rumor from the outside arrived: on the radio they had mentioned the airport. Toulouse has a huge aeronautics industry, including the Airbus factory. We started to feel scared.

Other theories were coming thick and fast; a bomb in the town centre, a gas main explosion, the chemical plant down the road, the fertilizer plant, a plane crash near the airport… The only thing in common was that the media were all saying they didn’t know. That in itself is scary.

After a few more agonisingly long minutes, the radios and TV feeds began to agree and provide verified information: the fertilizer plant had exploded. People were being told to go home. No, they should stay where they were, and stay inside. No, they should go home. There were reports of a huge cloud of unidentified gas spreading over the city. The boss decided to send us all home.

I don’t have a car, so I hitched a ride with a colleague of mine who lived right next to my sister’s place. Home was too far away and on-one else from the office lived nearby. I managed to get my husband (then boyfriend) on the phone, he was ok, but he had just seen every window in the area explode outwards, everything was a mess. He was near home, he could see that our windows had been blown out, so he was going to go up and make sure the cat was ok and try to board up the holes.

My colleague Andy and I sat in the car, hardly saying anything, listening to the radio and hoping that the “use internal ventilation” button on the Punto would be enough to keep out whatever the hell that gas was. The traffic was hardly moving. Everyone wanted to go home. As we moved slowly along, we could see plenty of shops and houses with broken windows, and a few people with cuts and bruises walking the streets. We were miles from the plant. THe phone lines gave up at that point under the sheer number of calls.

On the radio, the descriptions of events at the scene felt strangely detached, as if we were hearing about a war in Africa or some faraway events, but we knew it was just the other side of town. People were dead, many were injured, buildings were crumbling, cars were smashed… It was the end of the world, and we were stuck in traffic.

By the time we had crossed most of the city centre and were nearing our destination, the radio had informed us that the cloud was ammonia gas, not deadly but very irritating if it got in contact with the eyes, nose and throat. Still not pleasant. We were within walking distance of my sister’s place, so I bid Andy farewell and jumped out of the car. The air was fine, it had a slight tang to it, but it was perfectly bearable. I walked up to my sister’s building, in through the open door and along the corridor to her flat. She was fine, she had been working on the computer and hadn’t noticed anything was wrong.

We turned on the radio and sat and listened. They still had no idea what had happened. Had it been an accident? Was it a bomb? Rumors kept filtering in about other incidents, although they were usually dismissed as being either false or caused by the shockwaves from the original blast. The metro had been closed, the airport was on red alert, planes had been grounded… After a while, things calmed down, the phone lines opened up and the traffic subsided as people gradually all reached their homes (or in some cases what was left of them). I can’t even remember how I got home after that.

A few days later, we were driving along the Rocade, the big ring road that circles Toulouse. The section near the plant had been closed while the debris and bodies were cleared and structural tests were done to ensure it wouldn’t collapse. The plant looked like something out of a WWII photo. The huge red and white striped tower that had spat out its disgusting yellow fumes for so long was now still, and it had a huge gash down one side. The large warehouses and factory buildings were in bits. Then we saw the crater. The huge gaping hole where warehouse 221 had stood. As we passed it, we slowed down and stared. So did everyone else on the road. Rubbernecking was a reflex. The sight was breathtaking. And once we had passed the factory, just across the Garonne river from it, we realised that the chemical plant, that produces delightful things such as mustard gas, was so very, very close.

Ten years later, we still don’t really know what happened, although the theory of an accidental mixture of chemicals is still the most prominent. The city has healed, the ground has been cleared and the buildings fixed or replaced. But the people haven’t.


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