Fifteen years after the disaster in Toulouse, victims are still fighting for justice


Deprived of ‘their’ day in court. As they left the hearing that determined the terms of the trial of Total and its subsidiary Grande Paroisse for the AZF (AZote Fertilisants or nitrogen fertilisers) chemical factory disaster in Toulouse on 21 September 2001 which killed 31 people, the overwhelming feeling among the victims who had travelled to Paris for the occasion was one of bitterness.

The legal chapter of their battle began in 2009. The aim was to determine just how far Total and Grande Paroisse were responsible for the accident caused by the mixing of ammonium nitrate and chlorine derivatives by a contract worker who was supposed to recycle used bags.

“Everyone from within the company knew that there was an implicit border between the north and the south of the factory, to prevent any mixing of these two substances. But not the worker who came from outside,” explains Jean-François Grelier, chairman of the 21 September Disaster Victims Association.

The first trial, with Serge Biechlin, former director of the Grande Paroisse factory, and Thierry Desmarest, CEO of Total, in the dock, ended in an acquittal. The prosecution had called for a €225,000 fine for Grande Paroisse, Total’s subsidiary, and a €45,000 fine with a three year suspended sentence for the director of Grande Paroisse.

The prosecution appealed: the second trial ended with those sentences being handed down in 2012.

Total then appealed on a point of law, namely that one of the magistrates at the trial was not “impartial” because she was vice-president of the Victims Aid and Mediation Institute. Yet she had asked the president of the court to be disqualified, which he had refused.

A new trial is foreseen for 2017.

That raises another problem: only the Paris and Marseille appeals courts are qualified to try cases relating to collective accidents. The AZF trial however concerns 3,000 plaintiffs and 2,500 third parties who live in Toulouse and they cannot take four months off to attend a trial in Paris.

Jean-François Grelier found a solution, however. “There is an article in law, on ‘mobile hearings’, which allows for judges to travel, instead of the parties. We therefore asked the Minister of Justice to intervene, and to ask the Court of Cassation to send the judges to Toulouse.”

On the morning of 27 September, however, the Appeal Court magistrates decided otherwise: the trial will take place in Paris, from 24 January, but will be transmitted directly on screens in meeting rooms in Toulouse. Even the option of making the trial interactive was rejected.

“We don’t want a fan-zone,” said an angry Jean-François Grelier, who is still asking for a mobile court. He describes the trial as a “fiasco” and says he has “the impression that the financial powers are making the decisions”.

In an email to Equal Times, a Total spokesperson said simply: “The decision to hold the new appeal in Paris was made by the Court of Cassation, France’s highest judicial authority…the organisation of the future trial is the responsibility of the justice system.”


“Bring the trial home to Toulouse”

“Bring the trial home to Toulouse”. Everyone gathered at the roundabout on 21 September was chanting the same words. They had assembled for the fifteenth time to pay tribute to the 31 dead and to the 2,500 victims, of which they were all one, during a minute’s silence.

Just before their moment of silence, Brigitte went from group to group, greeting them with kisses. On the morning of 21 September 2001 she had come in as a temporary worker to replace Arlette, the secretary, who was due to go off on holiday.

As they talked, Brigitte saw a white arc, some yellow smoke, then nothing: she was thrown back against a cupboard, and knocked unconscious. When she woke up, she was under a pile of rubble, with a broken rib and covered in blood. She called to Arlette. Silence. Arlette would never reply again.

Fifteen years after the disaster, including two and half years of psychotherapy, she still cannot bear to go near the site. AZF cost her hearing, her career and her relationship. Today she is recognised as being 50 per cent disabled, which is not enough to qualify for assistance.

“I’m all alone, and my unemployment benefit stops in February,” she says anxiously. This former employee of Podium, the Claude François pop music magazine, is still full of energy, however. “I have no idea what will happen next…but nobody can take away my dignity. Every day I keep up the battle to get back on my feet” she says, head held high.


Hearing destroyed

Miguel and Maria, a couple of octogenarian Spaniards, are also on war footing. They live 700 metres, as the crow files, from the factory and were shopping in Faourette when they heard the explosion, before brown dust rained down on them. When they went back to their apartment, it was in ruins.

To begin with they camped out, but then they were worried their belongings would be pilfered, and returned home, blocking up the broken windows with plywood. “We had to wait for two years before they rebuilt our home,” says Maria.

Father, daughter, and then the mother, suffered from depression after the disaster. They all have to wear hearing aids. Anne-Marie, whose jaw was twisted in the accident, is being treated for severe tinnitus, to the extent that she has had several spells in a psychiatric hospital.

Patricia, meanwhile, suffers from hyperacusis: her car exploded while she was waiting at traffic lights on 21 September 2001. She and her two children, the youngest of which is now 19, all wear hearing aids.

The AZF explosion destroyed the hearing of hundreds of Toulouse’s residents. That is what stirred the 21 September Disaster Victims Association back into action: in 2013, the Total’s new insurance company refused to reimburse the replacement of the victims’ hearing aids.

Pauline Miranda, one of the first to realise, took the matter in hand and approached veteran anti-Total campaigner Jean-François Grelier, who was president of « Collectif des sans-fenêtres » (Windowless people’s collective) before leading the 21 September Victims’ Association.

She has succeeded in getting Total to pay for the hearing aids of 86 victims to date, as well as their maintenance and their replacement. They have recently joined the ranks of those fighting to be allowed to attend the trial against Total – in Toulouse.

They are joined on the roundabout by the “Never again – not here, not anywhere” association. Their spokesperson, Yves Gilbert, explains that although he personally was not directly affected by the factory explosion. “We don’t say ‘it could happen’ any more. It has happened and it has changed our lives, our way of seeing things. There is a ‘before’ and ‘after’ 21 September 2001.”

Following the disaster, he joined the fight to get the chemical park that had housed the AZF factory closed down. With his fellow campaigners, he filed a complaint against Total, first with the administrative and then with the legal courts. He also tried to make sure they had their say in the law that was introduced in the wake of the explosion on the prevention of industrial disasters.

Just a stone’s throw away, on the site of a memorial to the victims and the European cancer research centre, another tribute is paid, in the presence of representatives of the local authorities.

The ‘Remembrance and Solidarity’ collective of workers who escaped the disaster, would prefer to have the chemical park reopened, rather than see jobs lost. They do not believe it was an industrial accident, and are demanding “the truth” despite the conclusions of the courts.

Gérard Ratier, father of a worker who died, also took part in this commemoration. Although he believed at first that it was sabotage, the grieving father now believes Total covered up the proof that would have explained the disaster.

He is also angry that the trial is to take place in Paris. “A trial without the victims, two legal experts who are dead, lawyers who cannot stay for four months…it’s a pantomime. If we weren’t dealing with a multinational, the trial would have been over by now.”


This article has been translated from French.

This story has been translated from French.