When a Chemical Plant Exploded


ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2001, just ten days after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, a huge accidental explosion in a chemical plant tore through the suburbs of Toulouse, in southwest France. It was what the French newsmagazine Le Point described as “France’s worst industrial disaster since the end of World War II.”

Some 300 tons of fertilizer exploded, leaving a crater 160 feet [50 m] in diameter and 50 feet [15 m] deep. The blast and resulting shock wave killed 30 people and injured more than 2,200. About 2,000 homes were destroyed, and 27,000 others within a radius of five miles [8 km] were damaged. Panic ensued as people incorrectly assumed that a terrorist attack was to blame and that a cloud of poisonous gas had escaped from the plant.

Among Jehovah’s Witnesses, several were injured by the blast, and many were affected in other ways by the explosion. Christian love moved fellow Witnesses to respond immediately. (John 13:34, 35) The following is an account of the relief efforts.

“Nothing Was Left of the Building”

Khoudir is one of the survivors who worked in the chemical plant. The explosion and flying debris knocked him out, fracturing his jaw and dislocating his collarbone. Benjamin, who worked next to the chemical plant, was thrown ten feet [3 m] across an office into a wall. Flying glass cut him in several places and pierced his right eye, damaging his sight. “I was fortunate not to have been at my desk,” he said. “About 1,300 pounds [600 kg] of bricks fell onto my chair.”

Alain, a teacher in a school just 650 feet [200 m] from the plant, was making some photocopies when the blast occurred. He said: “Nothing was left of the building, just pieces of steel. No walls, no roof, nothing. I was struck by pieces of glass. I had gashes all over my face. It was like being hit in the face with a bludgeon.” Alain was blinded in one eye and is partially deaf as a result of the blast.

Speedy Relief Efforts

As soon as possible, elders in the 11 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses affected by the disaster contacted each member of the congregation to check for injuries or damage. Volunteers were immediately dispatched to those most in need of help. The volunteers soon learned that about 60 homes of Witnesses were damaged, and they assisted in relocating about ten of the families. Volunteers also helped repair two damaged Kingdom Halls. In addition, they offered practical assistance about how to make insurance claims.

Catherine and Michel live just opposite the plant. Catherine was driving her car at the time of the blast. She explains: “At first we felt what was like an earthquake. A few seconds later, we heard the explosion. Then we saw the smoke rising. I drove to my neighborhood; it looked like a war zone. All the houses were torn open, and the shop windows were smashed. People were running in the street. Others were sitting or lying on the road, crying or screaming. At home, all our windows and even the frames had been blown out, and no doors were left. Our Christian brothers and  sisters quickly came to help us. By afternoon a team from the congregation had arrived with buckets and brooms along with plastic sheeting to seal the windows.”

Alain and Liliane also live next to the plant. The explosion ripped through their apartment. “Everything was smashed,” says Alain. “The walls and tiles were cracked, and the windows, doors, and furniture were all destroyed. There was absolutely nothing left. Our Christian brothers came immediately to help. They cleared up the debris and also helped clean other apartments in the building. Our neighbors were very surprised to see that so many people came to help.” On the morning of the explosion, Alain had received a phone call from a Bible student asking him to come for a Bible study. Liliane had gone out to run an errand. Thus, neither was at home when the blast occurred.

The assistance that the Witnesses gave was not limited to members of the congregation. After helping each other, they then helped their neighbors, clearing debris out of apartments and sealing up broken windows. The neighbors were very grateful and were surprised that no fee was charged.

Help was also offered to the local authorities, who were overwhelmed by the extent of the damage. Witnesses cleaned up schools and other public buildings. In one neighborhood, the local authorities sent Witness volunteers from door to door to assess people’s needs.

Providing Spiritual Help

In addition to material help, many of the Witnesses in the area of the explosion were in need of spiritual help. Thus, traveling overseers along with local elders made calls on all those affected by the disaster. This support was greatly appreciated. Catherine stated: “The elders rallied around us. They came to encourage us. In fact, this was what we needed, more than material help.”

The Christian love that quickly went into action following this disaster gave rise to some interesting comments. One Witness who was seriously injured said: “We just don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We must constantly serve Jehovah as if it were our last day.” (James 4:13-15) Another Witness concluded: “All of this has helped us to realize that we should not be unduly attached to any material things. What is of real value is to be found among Jehovah’s people.”

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Benjamin and Khoudir

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Toulouse the day after the explosion

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Alain and Liliane