In 2001 three miles from my city centre a fertilizer factory,
part of the Total
group, blew up. 30 people died, thousands were injured and a pall of fumes hung over the city.
There could have been many more fatalities. Directly across the river there was another factory that produces explosives. A spark from the explosion could have led to further grave consequences.
There were 2500 serious causalities and 8000 minor injuries. The blast was heard / felt for 50 miles.
Over five hundred tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew up, producing a blast equivalent to 100 tonnes of TNT. It caused a double bang: through the ground and through the air. It measured 3.5 on the Richter scale. The enquiry reported that it was caused by the interaction of two chemicals produced by the site. NH4NO3 and a chlorine derivative DCCNa. The experts said that although the explosion was accidental it was caused by a 'banalisation du risque'
. The factory had got so used to working with the materials they had forgotten how dangerous which led to negligence and a series of mistakes which eventually caused the accident.
This type of accident could happen again.
Over dinner last night I was told that the factory across the river is still operational, despite its proximity to one of the city's most densely populated areas and the huge new Canceropol hospital which is built on the site of the explosion.
After the AZF disaster the French government put new regulations in place from July 2003. New measures to prevent dangerous factories close to areas of population and to deal with existing dangerous situations where housing has developed around existing enterprises which now present serious risks to health and safety. However there is still much needed to be done in this area.
The explosion took place 11 days after 9/11
. People involved did not know immediately what the cause of the explosion; and the smoke was also initially thought to be poisonous. Safety services asked people to stay indoors with windows and doors shut by driving through the streets with loud hailers / megaphones as people tried to flee the city
and as one of the major routes from the city next to the blast site caused panic
and traffic chaos.
Ushahidi works as an international emergency line
. Information can go in and come out. It helps coordinate emergency plans in the first hours and days of a disaster. When this incident occurred the phone lines went down.
In this case people where told to stay out of the fumes, so how were they to call for help for the injured Ushahidi
would have been useful in this incident for collecting information about damaged buildings and the injured while all the usual emergency services were beyond stretched to deal with all the problems. It could also have been a useful source of accurate information
and to prevent panic and speculation about the cause of the explosion and the nature of the fumes.