Facebook Twitter

Blast kills 12, hurts 180 at French chemical plant

SHARE Blast kills 12, hurts 180 at French chemical plant

TOULOUSE, France — A powerful blast ripped through a petrochemicals factory in the southern French city of Toulouse Friday, killing 12 people and injuring 180, including 30 seriously, the local government said.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Paris ruled out a criminal attack, saying the explosion was due to human error.

Police urged locals to stay inside their homes as a red cloud, which could be toxic, was spotted near the factory after the accident. Residents reported a strong smell of ammonia.

Hundreds of firefighters picked through the rubble for victims and to ascertain the risk of toxic leaks.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin arrived in Toulouse to inspect the scene of the blast, and President Jacques Chirac's office said he was on his way, too.

"We know unfortunately that there was a large number of victims," Jospin told reporters. "This accident is dramatic."

The explosion rocked the AZF plant in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Toulouse at around 10:20 a.m., flattening a wide area and blowing out windows as far away as the city center.

Some 350 employees were in the building at the time.

Local hospitals said scores were wounded by flying glass. Others were being counseled by psychologists for shock after witnessing scenes eerily reminiscent of last week's suicide hijacking attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

Witnesses reported hearing two loud booms and seeing a cloud of smoke. Panic spread as people, unnerved by television footage of the attacks on the United States, ran for cover.

"I heard two booms," one woman told the television station M6. "There was panic in the street, it was terrible. There is some sort of dust in the air. It's scary."

The force of the blast toppled two chimneys at the chemicals plant, a subsidiary of French oil giant TotalFinaElf, which produces nitrogen and phosphate products used in the making of explosives.

"On the AZF site, there is only rubble," one witness told Reuters. "The factory buildings have been blown away. There's almost nothing left."

The director of an ammunition factory nearby, owned by the Societe Nationale des Poudres et Explosifs, said there had been a second, lesser explosion there as a result of the original blast at neighboring AZF, but nobody was injured.

Local residents said the force of the blast blew out windows and cut off telephone lines.

"The whole town heard it. Everybody left the building. Phone lines are no longer working," said a receptionist at Airbus headquarters on the outskirts of Toulouse.

An electrical goods store 300 yards from the AZF plant collapsed 45 minutes after the explosion. Across town, schools and department stores were evacuated.

Flights to Toulouse were being rerouted to other airports, according to a local crisis emergency center.

Emergency workers blocked streets close to the scene of the blast, causing traffic jams that were hampering the circulation of emergency service vehicles. Trucks equipped with loudspeakers broadcast messages advising residents to stay indoors.

Although initial tests conducted by the local government indicated the cloud was not toxic, residents were being advised to avoid drinking tap water until they were given the all-clear.

France has deployed thousands of troops and police in airports and rail and metro stations and stepped up street and border controls in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.