To tell the truth, I’ve never much liked Ajka. It was one of those small industrial towns I passed through on my way from the almost Tuscan beauty of the hilly northern shore of Lake Balaton, to visit my friends in Gyor, a city which shines like an amethyst on the shores of the Danube, the Rába, and the Mosoni Duna rivers. Ajka was a town, in my memory, of roundabouts and low Communist-era panel housing, of sprawling old industries and sprawling new shopping malls, interspersed with graveyards. So I wasn’t prepared for the kindness of the people, the solidarity, and the hospitality I met at every turn, in the midst of Hungary’s worst ever chemical accident.

The disaster struck at lunchtime, on Monday, 4 October. The commander of the fire station, József Rauch, got a phone call from the police. “Something seems to be leaking down at the reservoirs,” he was told. “We’d better go and have a look,” he told his men – all nine of them, in two fire engines. The road towards Devecser from Ajka leads slightly downhill, past a long line of what look like hills on your right, but when you look closer, you realise that the shape is too regular, the incline too sharp – these are reservoirs, containing the red and grey sludge, the by-product of 50 years of the production of alumina, or aluminium oxide. The material used to be transported to the great furnaces of the Soviet Union, for use in the military industry. Now the company includes the US military among its long list of clients, though much nowadays also goes on the production of more peaceful products, like bathroom tiles and reinforced plastics.

There are eleven reservoirs in all, and an appalling sight met the eyes of József Rauch and his team when they reached the end of the row. A tide of red mud, metres thick, was gushing from the north-western corner of reservoir number 10, towards Kolontár. In this village of eight hunded souls, elderly people were feeding their chickens, hanging out their washing, or leaning over their stoves, putting the finishing touches to lunch in sturdy, single-storey peasant houses. Only a kilometre from the broken reservoir across open fields, the village bore the full brunt of the red wave. Cars on the streets, fences, and outhouses were swept away, and walls collapsed. Roland Fekete and his wife Niki lived in Malom utca – Mill Street – in one of the most exposed places. They managed to save two of their dogs, the third was swept away, along with the childrens’ trampoline, and all the outhouses in the yard. Their two children – six and eight years old – were fortunately at school in Ajka.

A few houses down, an elderly lady waved helplessly to her neighbours from her window, as the red mud filled her living room, right up to her shoulders. She was hauled to safety through the window. Some people scrambled up onto the hill on which the Catholic church stands. Looked at from the air, it was as though someone had tipped a great bucket of red paint down through a green valley. In another house, a fifteen month old baby was swept from its mother’s arms, and lost in the flood.

“We tied ourselves together with ropes, and tried to reach the elementary school,” said József Rauch, the fire captain. He saw a young man drive his car down Kossuth street, over the bridge across the Torna stream, to rescue people on the far side. But the car was swept away, far down across the fields, and the young man died. As in the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York, the firemen were the heroes of the day in Kolontár too. Back at the school, children were carried to safety through the swirling liquid on the shoulders of the firemen. On the far-side of the Torna stream, the damage was worst. The houses had no upstairs to run to, so people climbed on tables in their living rooms, if they had time, as the sludge broke down the doors. People cried for their animals, the dogs in the yard, as they were carried away. Animals which were tied up stood no chance. Some which were free survived.

After Kolontár, the red tide hit Devecser, a town of 5,400 people, then on down the valley of the Torna, to the Marcal river, leaving the curious flat-topped hill of Somló, one of Hungary’s best white wine producing regions, unscathed nearby. I went to Devecser first, when I arrived on Tuesday, the day after the accident. The first thing I noticed was that the main road which runs past the town was stained red by the mud on the tires of the emergency vehicles. Then I crossed the railway track into a scene of utter desolation. A red tidal mark, half way up the sides of the houses. The roads, the yards, the petrol station, a restaurant, the whole town awash with red. Soon after I arrived it started raining. I had passed an army convoy, of heavy lifting equipment, and ambulances earlier. Now I saw a town full of soldiers, of firemen, of ambulances. It was like Croatia in 1991, or Bosnia in 1992, at the start of the war. And everywhere, as in wartime, little clusters of local people at the roadside, talking in hushed tones, trying to come to terms with the destruction.

I drove on to Kolontár, back up the valley. On both sides of the road, the red sludge lay on the soil, perhaps a metre thick. I saw red tomatoes, ripe on their plants, sticking incongruously out of the red mud. And orange pumpkins, stranded in the fields like ships at low tide. There was a bitter, acrid smell in the air. And items of clothing in the poisonous ditches – socks and single shoes, a shirt, someone’s fridge. I parked my car in front of the makeshift rescue headquarters, pulled on the protective chemical clothes, issued to me seven years earlier, to save me from Saddam Hussein’s elusive chemical weapons, set up the satellite dish on the roof, and started sending reports to London. The mayor of Kolontár, Károly Tili, stood in front of his small office, directing the rescue operation like a conductor an orchestra, finding time to advise distraught villagers one moment, disaster management officials the next. You could see on his face that the possibility had already dawned on him, that he might soon be a mayor without a village, that Kolontár might be written off. But he resisted it. “There are parts which will remain habitable,” he insisted, stubbornly. “We must save what we can.”

The purpose of the army convoy became clear. There was a plan to lay an army pontoon bridge over the Torna stream. Until then, the worst-damaged area beyond was accessible only down a dirt track from the main road near Devecser – a 14 km detour – or by helicopter. In adversity, it seems, the Hungarians are at their best. There was a vast chaotic energy in the village, plenty of despair, but no dispute. The firemen and the police seemed the best organised. Volunteers had already begun arriving from nearby towns and villages. All they had was their overalls, and rubber boots.

The rain drummed ever harder on the roof of my car, and the flimsy umbrella I set up to try to protect my satellite dish soon blew away. In no time I was coated in the mud. With every action I got mud on my hands. It was impossible to open a car door, change your boots, move equipment around, walk down the road, without the mud splashing everywhere. How toxic was it? No-one seemed to know. In the comment section of the excellent local website, Napló-online, a young woman who gave her name as “fireman’s girlfriend” asked for advice on health. Her man had come home at two in the morning, and left again at five, to take part in the rescue, she wrote. In fact, the highly caustic, alkaline solution burnt the skin as much as any acid would have. The people wading through it, inside their homes as well as out, residents and rescuers alike, suffered serious burns. 150 were hospitalised in the first two days. Three were found dead on the first day. Within a week, the death toll rose to nine.

On the Wednesday, the third day of the disaster, when the army pontoon bridge was finally in place, I met a man covered from head to foot in mud, walking purposefully beside a pickup truck loaded with bicycles. I asked if he would be willing to talk, but he shook his head, and kept going. There was such a look of sadness in his eyes. I asked his companion what had happened. “He’s been looking for his mother, day and night…” the rescue worker replied. There were still six people missing at that time. They were found, all dead, as the days passed, some of their bodies swept almost to Devecser across the fields.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán arrived in Kolontár before dawn, to help the rescue services wake the remaining villagers in Kolontár. They all had to leave, they were told, because new cracks had been found overnight along the northern wall of the stricken reservoir. It could collapse at any time, sending a new deluge of sludge onto their village. The families had only two hours to pack, then they sat on buses and cars and were driven the few kilometres up the road to Ajka, past the source of the blight which had hit their village, the waste reservoirs on their left. The older people were the most reluctant to leave, especially because they could not take their animals. Those who had no relatives or friends to stay with were installed in emergency accomodation in the Sports Hall in Ajka.

The Prime Minister gave an impromptu press conference in the fire station, in jeans and leather jacket. Everyone who wanted to return to the affected villages would be helped, he promised. So would those who wanted to build a new life elsewhere. And the company would have to pay. “There is no evidence at all that this was a natural disaster,” he said. “Someone must be to blame.”

The world media moved from Kolontár to the Sports Hall. A lady wearing a headscarf, carrying a basket, moved nimbly through a crowd of Japanese reporters in space suits, Serbian cameramen, Spanish radio journalists, and Austrian satellite broadcast engineers, offering cheese scones she had just made. “Take one, they’re still warm” she told them proudly, “I made them myself.” No-one understood a word, but everyone appreciated her cooking. Meanwhile inside the hall, access for journalists was restricted after the evacuees told aid workers they felt like “animals in a zoo” besieged by the cameras. I gave one report for the BBC Arabic TV channel. The studio forgot to switch off the simultaneous translation into Arabic in my ear. But I soldiered on, the mud of so many languages, mixing in my brain in the late afternoon light. On such occasions, we are all in the zoo, but who is to say which side of the fence we are on?

On Wednesday, the sun came out at last, painting the destruction in ever more vivid, more beautiful colours. Even the leaves on the trees were turning to red, as though in imitation of the mud. The drier weather eased the pains of the emergency workers, but brought new problems in its wake. As the mud dried, it began to blow as dust through the air. No-one knew how toxic it was, but everyone knew it contained heavy metals, like arsenic. And the dust was churned up, into the air, by the wheels of every fire engine, every army lorry, every earth-moving vehicle.

On Sunday morning we got special permission to attend morning mass in the otherwise closed town of Devecser. The policemen on duty at the gates of the city would not let us pass until they were expressly told to let us in on their walkie-talkies. There were fifty or sixty worshippers – a strange mix of local people in their Sunday-best clothes, aid workers from the Catholic charity Caritas in their distinctive red anoraks, and others in the full white protective gear, like worshippers from another planet. Candles flickered on the altar. There were fresh cut flowers, the gold paint on the fittings, the deep blue paint of Mary’s cloak, as she nursed the body of her crucified son in her arms. The eye took refuge in every colour that was not red, in a pallette where red had become the colour of death and destruction. The priest, Miklós Mold, who is also the priest of the church in Kolontár preached in his sermon about God parting the Red Sea to let Moses take his people to the promised land. And he spoke of the Good Samaritan, stooping to the aid of the beaten Israelite. On the steps of the church, we filmed a grandmother gently fitting a mask onto her seven year old grandson Noel’s face, before putting on her own. “Everything is uncertain now,” she lamented. Noel was more upbeat. “I had a good week, because I didn’t have to go to school,” he explained. “I played with Csenge and Luca. But we had to play indoors. We weren’t allowed out…” He, like everyone else in the town, had packed a single bag, ready to be evacuated at any moment, if the reservoir burst again.

After church, we joined a gaggle of journalists at the firestation in Ajka, promised access to the worst affected areas by the press chief of the Disaster Management Unit, Tibor Dobson. We drove in three army buses, first back to Kolontár, to see progress on a massive new protective barrier. The plan was to link it with the church hill in the village, right across the fields. 1500 metres long, 30 metres wide at the base, eight metres wide at the crown, it was to be a permanent feature on the village landscape, to contain any further leak from the reservoir.

Then we were allowed up into the reservoir itself, for the first time since the disaster happened. “This is going to be very dangerous,” an army officer explained, “please keep to the narrow passageway between the pipes.” State Secretary for the Environment, Zoltán Illés led the way, dressed inexplicably in a pin-stripe suit and shiny black shoes, followed by a herd of international journalists, like ducks and geese in all our protective garments, clucking up the narrow path onto the reservoir. And finally there it was, the red planet, the vast red expanse of 24 hectares of mud, sloping down to the gaping hole, 50 metres wide, in the far corner, as though a tooth had been knocked out of the reservoir’s mouth. We walked the narrow causeway between the broken reservoir number 10, and the still intact reservoir number 9, with Zoltán Illés keeping up a running commentary on the dangers. If the rest of 10 oozed out, it would not go far, he explained, because the material left in it was much drier than the surface liquid which caused the initial tidal wave. The real danger was now that if that happened, reservoir 9 would burst through the wall on which we were now idly strolling, because only when the two were both full had a structural balance between them been maintained. So they were desperately pumping off some of the liquid from reservoir 9, to try to lessen the danger of that happening. But of course that would make new problems in the future, because without the liquid, the toxic mud would dry out, and blow in the wind across the whole surrounding landscape…

At the end of the causeway, we turned left, out onto the endangered northern wall of reservoir 10. We were told to walk in single file, to lessen the danger of our steps triggering the very accident we had come here to see. “The wall beneath you is moving all the time,” Mr Illés said, reassuringly. For the first time in twenty-five years as a journalist, I heard my colleagues grumble about getting too much access to a story.

At the end of the line, we were only allowed forward in groups of five or six, to inspect three gaping cracks in the top of the wall – the fissures which had provoked the evacuation of Kolontár, and preparations for the evacuation of Devecser. We were close enough to put our hands or feet in them, though no-one tried. Then back to safety, and even an improvised lunch of sandwiches and sweetbreads on a slightly less exposed section. “But why did they bring us here?” I heard an indefatigably suspicious French colleague ask, “what are they trying to hide?”

Each day brought a new drama. On the Monday, the Prime Minister told Parliament that there were “well-grounded suspicions,” that the company management had known of the structural weakness of the reservoir, but had done nothing. An aerial photograph was published in some newspapers, taken in June, showing a clear trickle of red from the reservoir, into the fields. The managing director of the Aluminium Production and Trade Company, Zoltán Bakonyi, was detained by police for questioning, then released after 48 hours. But in the meantime, Parliament passed a law allowing the state to take control of firms responsible for major environmental disasters. Even the opposition voted in favour, with a single exception. The former Socialist leader and prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány wrote in his blog that the law gave any government carte blanche to nationalise anything they wanted to. Several newspapers, including those usually more friendly to his party, wrote of the role of the aluminium factory in his own accumulation of wealth, when factories were sold for a fraction of their real value, in the mid 1990s. The criminal investigation into the disaster is focussing on whether the company flouted safety requirements, whether it overfilled reservoir 10, and whether it knew there was a danger of an accident, and did nothing. Similar facilities elsewhere in the world are obliged by law to treat the waste to reduce the pH value to 10 or below. In Ajka it was 13. A statement by the company immediately after the disaster suggested the material was not hazardous at all, according to European Union definitions.

“Such an argument would be disingenous,” Joe Hennon, the spokesman of the EU Environmental Commissioner told me. Three EU directives are relevant to the disaster, he explained. The Directive on Hazardous Waste. The Intregrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive. And the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD). Even though red sludge from alumina production is not specifically listed in the appendix of the first directive, it is certainly included under the terms of the IPPC, the directive under which the company received its most recent permit to operate in 2006. But there were loopholes in the ELD he said. If an accident like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster were to happen in European waters, he said, the company concerned would only be partly liable, as oildrilling is not specifically listed. When Hungary takes over the Presidency of the EU in January, Zoltán Illés, the fearless state secretary who took us up onto the reservoir, has promised he will push for EU legislation to be tightened.

Two weeks after the disaster, I rang Roland Fekete, the villager from Mill Street, to ask about his plans. He had still not received a penny in support, promised by the company, he said. He and his family were living in a rented flat in Ajka. They would never return to Kolontár again. Their home was to be bulldozed. It could not be saved. “At least we’re still young,” said his wife, Niki, twenty-eight, “we can begin a new life again, somewhere else.”
Up on Freedom hill, near the football pitch, the village smith István Molnár, sixty, looked down from his garden onto the polluted valley. “I’m staying put,” he said, “all the older residents want to stay here.” Up on the higher ground, his workshop had not been affected. “Worse things have happened in our 1000 year history.”

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