Questions still haunt victims of Toulouse chemical plant blast
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September 21, 2001. Hanger 221 of the AZF factory in Toulouse is suddenly obliterated. 500 tons of fertilizer explode and a shockwave sweeps away everything in its path, reaching the centre of the city. 31 people were killed that day, and thousands injured in what’s been described as France’s worst industrial accident since World War Two. Nearly 14 years on, the courts are still grappling with the case. For those affected, there’s little sense of closure. France 24 went to meet them.
We meet Pauline and her husband Laurent as they make an emotional return. For the first time in nine years, they're visiting their former home. It was devastated by the AZF disaster back in 2001.
"Everybody in the estate was outside, some of them were covered in blood,” recalls Pauline, who was driving nearby at the time of the explosion.”It was like a warzone. I was in nervous shock and crying. There was blood pouring out of my head because I'd lost my left ear."
After all this time, Pauline is still suffering the psychological side-effects of the blast.
Meanwhile, Jacques Mignard, former security chief at the AZF site, is still seeking justice for former workers.
The AZF affair has seen two huge trials involving 3,000 plaintiffs and 50 lawyers.
In 2012, the Toulouse appeals court ruled the explosion was caused by the accidental mixing of two chemical products at the plant. The Total subsidiary in charge was judged guilty of causing death, injury and damage through negligence.
But the story isn't over. In January 2015, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, this time in Paris.
Jacques is pleased at the chance to re-examine the facts, with much speculation remaining over exactly what happened: "We hope a fair trial will be organised, taking every aspect into account."
Didier was technical director at the plant back in 2001 and went on to work for Total after the disaster. He’s devoted his spare time to going through the 7,000 page trial dossier, as well as statements from witnesses and experts that were never taken into account in court. For him, the official version of events doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
"People want fast, easy explanations, because that way it's easier to mourn the victims and turn the page," Didier says.
"What is more difficult is to go through all the facts we have, one by one, and analyse them using tools like Google Earth, which the inquiry never did at the time. When you go through all the trial evidence, some of it is unbelievable.”
Gérard Ratier denounces a judicial fiasco. He’d hoped the affair was over and that he could finally complete the mourning process for the son he lost.
"It's all been going on far too long. However powerful Total may be, they won't escape justice. I don't know what the future holds, but I don't think the mourning period will ever be over."
14 years after tragedy hit Toulouse, many of those affected are still seeking closure.
And as time passes, there's a growing feeling that a truth acceptable to all may never be found.