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Experts doubt blast in France was accidental

TOULOUSE, France, Sept 28: One week after an explosion in a chemicals plant here killed 29 people and injured 2,500 others, there was growing unease on Friday about the official theory that the cause of the blast was an accident.

As Prime Minister Lionel Jospin led a team of ministers to the ravaged city to offer a 1.5 billion franc (230 million euro) aid package, experts cast doubt over the initial explanation that a warehouse containing 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had self-combusted.

City prosecutor Guy Breard - who on Friday ordered a judicial enquiry to be opened - earlier said it was "99 percent certain this was an accident," and as for an "attack organised by a group - certainly not, I am quite clear on this." But community leaders and local politicians condemned the haste of his conclusions, and newspapers cited leading scientists who said the chemical involved was a relatively stable product and there was no precedent for an unprovoked explosion.

"One can only be astonished to hear that the cause is 99 percent accidental, when the enquiry has only just begun. I have my doubts," said Toulouse mayor Philippe Douste-Blazy.

According to Christian Michot, director of the National Institute for the Industrial Environment, quoted in several newspapers, "Ammonium nitrate can only explode after the application of a significant quantity of energy."

This could come either from an explosive projectile, or from a sustained fire in a constricted area, experts said. However there was no evidence of a fire, because there was no sign of smoke before the explosion and heat detectors were not triggered.

Meanwhile Le Figaro newspaper published eyewitness testimony of a woman - named only as Emilie - who said she had seen "a kind of flash, like a streak of light, which travelled for a few seconds towards the hangar." It also quoted several people who said there had been two explosions - a smaller one followed by the detonation of the chemicals. "Many people here are of the same opinion - and we saw it: it was an attack, and nothing else," Emilie was quoted as saying.

The explosion totally destroyed the AZF factory, which had been built 80 years ago in what was then a greenfield site but had gradually been surrounded by encroaching suburban development.

Of the 2,500 people who were hurt in the blast, some 300 remained in hospital Friday. Some 10,000 homes were damaged, around 50 schools have been unable to re-open, and 7,000 people have been made temporarily redundant.

Douste-Blazy called Thursday for a state-sponsored "Marshall plan" for the city. He said that in addition to the doubts over the future of Toulouse's chemical sector, the aeronautical industry which employs many in the region had also been badly hit by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US.

Toulouse is the headquarters of the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, whose new super-jumbo, the A380, appeared to have glowing prospects before the crisis of confidence caused by the attacks. Meanwhile AZF's owner - the oil giant TotalFinaElf - has been cited in a series of law suits filed by victims of the disaster.

An action group, "Never Again," called for a march in Toulouse Saturday to highlight the dangers posed by chemical factories in residential neighbourhoods.-AFP

-- Martin Thompson (, September 29, 2001


This one does have a fishy odor to it...doesn't it?

-- R2D2 (, September 30, 2001.

The other amazing thing is the lack of news coverage, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Translate the same numbers to, say, the (former?) HQ location of Boeing, i.e. Seattle, perhaps that's what it takes to make this real to Americans: "29 dead, 2,500 hurt, 300 remain in hospital, 10,000 homes damaged, 50 schools unable to re-open, 7,000 people [out of work]."

This was a *huge* event, yet almost no one in the U.S. is aware or cares.

As regards cause, yes indeed, smells fishy -- is that a chemical pun??? This will be like TWA800, we'll never know the truth to our collective satisfaction.

-- Andre Weltman (, September 30, 2001.

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