What Explosion?

Paul Seabright

On 21 September, the day of the explosion, I should not have been in Toulouse at all. I was due to be in America, where a conference that involved many people flying long distances was being held in a defiant gesture of business as usual. My excuse seemed curiously convenient. ‘You fell off a bridge?’ There were no external traces, barely even a bruise, just a tendency to wince theatrically at apparently random moments. My relief when the X-rays came through was great, and so was that of one of my American hosts. ‘I did want to hold the conference despite the local disaster, as a bit of a statement that we are back on track. At least we can announce you broke your rib, which is not an admission of intimidation.’ I was uncomfortably conscious of having been spared a minor test I might have failed. But grateful to be away from aircraft and in a safe provincial city.

At 10.21 a.m. I was standing in one of the boulevards when there was a bang; my memory sends conflicting evidence about how loud it was. A couple of moments later I realised that the large doors and several windows of Decathlon, a big sportswear store, had been blown out into the street. Decathlon is a modest symbol of capitalism in its way, with low prices, a wide range of goods and an image of the unpretentious open air that resonates profitably with the French skiing, walking and camping public. After the World Trade Center, this sort of terrorist attack seemed – thankfully – a bit of a comedown, a trivial boast by a local hoodlum to impress a strictly local audience. I walked home, telling various people that there had been a bomb in Decathlon, unaware that across the city people were observing the same thing. The Galeries Lafayette, the FNAC, even the Marks & Spencer they were going to close anyway – the one with the long rows of identical summer dresses and the shelf of marmalade where all the shoppers seem to be English – were all under simultaneous attack. A population that for a week had lived and dreamed images of a collapsing Manhattan was not about to find such an idea far-fetched. Once the mobile phones began to buzz we would believe that we were facing a precisely co-ordinated, major terrorist assault.

By 11 o’clock the radio had announced that it was instead an industrial accident, of unknown extent but substantial. I left home to walk fast to my daughter’s school. A different manifestation of alarm had begun to spread in the streets: scarves over the faces of pedestrians and cyclists, quickly succeeded by surgical masks. There were rumours of a cloud floating over the city. Unknown to us then, three hundred tonnes of ammonium nitrate had exploded five kilometres to the south in a fertiliser factory belonging to the group TotalFinaElf (for comparison, there were just two tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the Oklahoma City bomb). It flattened an area of more than sixty hectares, remarkably killing only 29 people but injuring three thousand others, destroying two schools and badly damaging ten more, writing off a hundred buses in the nearby depot and many hundreds of cars in the streets around, and blowing out the windows, doors and sometimes the walls of many thousands of homes. The explosion had registered 3.5 on the Richter scale, we were to repeat to each other over the next few days, not without a hint of local pride. The cloud, though, was more or less harmless.

When I reached my daughter’s school there was barely repressed panic. Some children as young as 12 have mobile phones, and false rumours spread as irresistibly as true ones. Many of the children still believed the school was under terrorist attack. They had been evacuated to the playground but then instructed by megaphone to return indoors, without any clear idea where to go except that they should avoid those classrooms whose windows had shattered. So they milled around in the corridors. The PA system was ‘en panne’ so the occasional announcements were inaudible in much of the complex. A stream of arriving parents only added to the pandemonium, as they invariably proved unable to find their own children at the entrance, and surged anxiously into the throng.

By lunchtime, however, we were home, and trying to disengage the images of the morning from those relayed to us by TV for the whole of the previous week. A video of Hitchcock’s Vertigo helped; manufactured fear is an excellent antidote to the real thing. The telephone began to ring, as it did constantly over the next couple of days, though among our friends in Britain the news was spreading largely through word of mouth. Before 11 September, a vast industrial accident in a major European city would have been headline news in Britain for days. Not now. We made the CNN homepage for only a few hours, long enough for the authorities to deem Osama bin Laden’s involvement unlikely. After we were removed the next piece of non-terrorist news I saw on the site was the admission to hospital of Sharon Stone. The Economist did not mention the event, even in its round-up item, The World This Week.

So conversations with anxious friends would be succeeded by chance calls from people who said ‘what explosion?’, making me feel apologetic, as though we were trying to compete with New York. But in the city the rumours multiplied. How did the ammonium nitrate explode? For that to happen, it needs to be heated to three hundred degrees. Some suggested the city authorities were nudging along a theory of sabotage, to divert attention from awkward questions about why so many applications for planning permission had been granted near the factory site, which had once been comfortably outside the city boundary. Periodically we were warned not to drink the water, usually on the authority of a cousin in the Environment Ministry. I began to wonder at all these moles in the bureaucracy, all of them cousins rather than people in their own right. My French friends and colleagues seemed to treat it as the normal way for information to be released in such a highly centralised state.

Then a story emerged, told to me directly by two sources independent of each other. The factory made more than fertiliser. It made fuel for the Ariane space rocket. Worse, it made phosgene, one of the nastier gases developed and used by the German Army in the First World War. One of my sources claimed that the phosgene stocked in Toulouse could not have had a wholly non-military use (I was never able to verify this rumour). It was stored in a large underground chamber across the river from the factory, and even closer to the city centre, at the premises of the Société Nationale des Poudres et Explosifs (SNPE), otherwise known as the Poudrerie, a name evoking to me an 18th-century image of wigs and make-up. The chamber was insulated against earthquakes, but it was connected to the factory by a long pipeline. The pipeline had held – but only just.

There are 1249 industrial premises in France classified ‘Seveso’, after the accident in 1976 that released a cloud of dioxin into the atmosphere above the Italian town of that name (more details, and the text of the two European Directives, Seveso I and Seveso II, can be found at europa.eu.int/comm/environment/seveso/). The heaviest concentrations of such sites are in the conurbations around Paris and Lyon; there is a cluster in the Toulouse area, including another fertiliser factory owned by TotalFinaElf. Nearly six hundred sites are classified Seveso I: that is, they contain more than 10,000 tonnes of inflammable liquid or over ten tonnes of explosives; of these, 69 are within the urban areas of France’s 24 largest cities and towns.

Before taking these concentrations to be evidence of criminal stupidity on the part of the planning authorities, consider the words of Paul Chevrier of the Communist trade union, the CGT. Speaking out against proposals to remove the most dangerous factories from the Lyon area, he said: ‘In any case, if you build a factory sixty kilometres from Lyon, the workers will buy plots of land to be able to live closer to where they work, then a bakery will open up, then a grocery and in ten years there’ll be a new town there.’ Yes, but the town won’t be Paris or Lyon – or Toulouse (we’ve become very parochial in our reactions). It is necessary to understand the deep sense of ownership that even a Communist trade union feels in a capitalist factory: this is our factory, our town. Once it is established the forces arrayed against relocation are for all practical purposes invincible.

It’s hard not to feel that the high drama of Manhattan may be misdirecting the world’s priorities. A few years from now, aircraft will be among the safest places in the world to be. You only have to build them so that the cockpit and the cabin have two separate entrances, each from outside the aircraft. Then you can concentrate on making sure passengers don’t carry on firearms or explosives, and however much fighting there is in the cabin the crew will still be able to guide the plane safely to its destination, perhaps sending in puffs of anaesthetic gas from time to time to calm down the wilder manifestations of religious fundamentalism, air rage or business class machismo. But factories full of explosives will never be safe, least of all against a determined terrorist assault. Aircraft advertise themselves as flying bombs, focusing all our fear and obsession, while poisons and explosives are always there in our cities, hidden within miles of tubing, watched over by bored security guards and politicians with their minds on elections. And why, in any case, should terrorists bother going to the trouble and expense of manufacturing chemical weapons for themselves, and transporting them into urban areas, when the societies they target have obligingly done the work for them?

Slowly, over the next few days, the story of the phosgene starts to come out in the press, and the damage limitation exercise begins. It has civilian uses, we are assured, in cosmetics. At Toulouse there were ‘a few tonnes’ in stock. Well, 285 tonnes actually according to sources who spoke to the magazine Le Point. Now that Liz Hurley is out of a job, perhaps we can expect to see her launch Phozz, a new range of cosmetics from that renowned fashion house TotalFinaElf. Libération asks the chief executive of the SNPE whether he can imagine ceasing phosgene production in Toulouse, leaving the factory to rely solely on the manufacture of rocket fuel. In replying he inadvertently gives away just how important the production of phosgene had become. ‘It’s economically impossible,’ he says. ‘We could never run the Toulouse factory profitably on such a small scale.’

My next-door neighbour, a retired historian, tells me he has found the first convincing explanation for the explosion. His contact in the factory, a man injured in the blast, tells him it was caused by a firm of subcontractors who did some welding. They spilled fuel oil and failed to clear it up before the next welding job. Oh, and by the way, the pipeline to the Poudrerie had three layers: the first two cracked with the force of the blast, and only the outer one held. In this paranoid atmosphere I am ready to believe everything and nothing.

The welding story is very convenient: blaming sub-contractors will allow everyone to argue that it wouldn’t have happened if we had done the job ourselves. Management, unions, even the department in the Mairie that issued all those planning approvals will be reassured to be told it was a freak accident. ‘C’est trop beau pour être vrai,’ my neighbour concludes with a smile. And sure enough, here in Toulouse, in Lyon and elsewhere, management and unions are already issuing statements warning against hasty decisions to relocate factories. They differ only in how labour intensive they would like the new security precautions to be. Here, as in America, business as usual is reasserting itself with a vigour one can only admire.

Then, on 4 October, comes another surprise. Le Figaro runs a surreal story on its front page. One of those who had died in the explosion was a man called Hassan Jandoubi, an employee at the factory, who was, according to Le Figaro, a known Islamist sympathiser. He had had an argument the day before with some colleagues when he objected to their displaying an American flag in solidarity with the victims of Manhattan. Most sinister of all, he was found to be wearing several layers of underwear. A well-known identifying characteristic of suicide bombers, apparently (nobody explains why; and I make a mental note to be more careful what I wear to work in the mornings). Suddenly, the national and international press is talking about Toulouse again. But the next morning there is a counterblast (as it were). The local paper, La Dépêche du Midi, pours scorn on the Figaro story, hinting that it has been put about by right-wing politicians for murky ends. The evidence linking Jandoubi with Islamist groups is non-existent, his girlfriend tells the police that he habitually wore multiple layers of underwear because he was embarrassed about looking skinny, and a recording of their last mobile phone conversation just before the accident reveals her asking him to remember to put the bins out. The story, investigators say, is ‘policièrement mort’, which in this country does not mean ‘dead in custody’. Jandoubi, by contrast, is really dead, and really a victim.

It was probably an accident and will probably not therefore be filed away under ‘terrorism’. Local politicians (‘les zélus’) will cope with rehousing; national politicians will move on with relief to something more glamorous; and we shall all gradually forget the chemistry of our surroundings. I found out that the other TotalFinaElf factory in Toulouse makes phosgene as well. I discovered this from a website run by a Government agency (www.midi-pyrenees.drire.gouv.fr/env/index.asp). Another Government site offers a helpful map of all the dangerous installations in France (www.ecologie.gouv.fr). I have so far been unable to find any equivalently useful information about the UK, even by visiting UK Online and its satellites dedicated to open government. Perhaps the British authorities have concluded that the whereabouts of stocks of poison and explosives in urban areas constitutes information too dangerous to release.