Day of remembrance
As I was standing on the threshold of a colleague's office, we heard a strong, weird noise, as though a cupboard had collapsed - only longer, deeper. Within a second or two, one would have sweared that a bomb had just exploded behind the classroom's door facing us. I opened the door, expecting some fearful scene behind, but nothing - the room was empty. Through the windows, nothing seemed to have even shivered.
The alarm tone resounded throughout the building and hundreds of people went out, swiftly but calmly. And there we were outside, looking at each other in disbelief. Some of us spotted a young woman in a state of shock. We were told that she had been like that before and that her crisis might be life-threatening if nothing was done. The nurse could not help, so I took her and a colleague in my car and out we went, heading to the nearest hospital, still not knowing what had happened. Somehow we knew that waiting for an ambulance would do no good.
The streets were a bit crowded, but nothing beyond a normal mid-morning. The hospital is on top of a hill. As we climbed the winding road, we noticed that dozens of cars were driving down, very slowly. I won't forget the sight of the hospital when we first saw it. All glasses were shattered to pieces, doctors, nurses, patients were running all over the place. So, it was not just one isolated explosion down there. There was no way I could park, so my colleague and the ailing lady stepped down in front of the emergency service. Later, I was told that she had recovered and was fine.
The hospital is within a mile from my office, but it took me 1 hour and 15 minutes to return. By then, I had heard on the news that there had been a big accident in a factory three miles away, and that glasses had been blown up throughout the city. Because of the depression following the shock, glasses seemed to have exploded from inside shops, stores, retaurants, and everybody downtown had thought of a series of criminal bombings. At some point on my way down the hill, I saw people with handkerchiefs on their noses. I seized one in front of me. It strongly smelt like ammoniac. I put it away. It was better to inhale ammoniac in the air after all.
That evening, students told me that they had seen a huge reddish cloud coming from the west, where the factory lied. I did not see it - I probably was "in" it with my car.
To this day, the reasons for this accident are not crystal clear, but it seems likely that it was, indeed, an accident. It might have been done purposedly, though. In that case, the guy who perpetrated the misdeed probably had no idea of the effect it would have.
30 people died that day or in the following weeks.
At the end of that week, together with students, we went to an estate housing area near the factory, so as to help if we could. The sight was unbelievable. Nothing had been spared inside the buildings. Bicycles were hanging across windows and baconies. Not one wall, not one door, not one cupboard was intact. A man of African ascent told us that he had been slightly wounded with glass, but did not go to the hospital, thinking that others needed it more urgently. I do hope that he went to a doctor's since then. Tens of thousands of people lost their homes.
Maybe the most terrible part of the story is the following. When you lose a dear one, the grief can be unbearable. You may never get over it. But there is a time for mourning, and then, perhaps, life can go on. 30 people died that day, as I said. 2,300 others were injured. Many of them lost their sight, their hearing. Arms, legs, fingers. Were left with devastated faces. Many of them were eldrely people, others young, teenagers, children. So yes, they survived. But their scars will follow them for many years to come.
Today at 10:17 local time, life stopped for three minutes, and we remembered how Toulouse, where life used to be so sweet, was blown up within seconds. It was on September 21, 2001. Ten days before, the world had been shaken by one of the most atrocious crimes ever. Thus, hardly anybody noticed what happened to the "rose city", as it is called in France. The sun is shining this afternoon, trees as enchanting as ever on the banks of the river, and people are as warm and welcoming as ever. But they don't smile quite as much as they would any other day. For dozens of years to come, there will be pain and scars in the flesh, in the eyes, in the souls. Life has resumed. This is a day to remember.