A toxic work environment
Bernadett Szabo spent eight days photographing the disaster that enveloped part of Western Hungary after a reservoir of red sludge, an alumina factory by-product, burst on October 4 and released one million cubic meters of highly toxic sludge that killed eight people, injured 120, and destroyed nearly 1,000 hectares (2,400 acres) of land. Here’s her account of working in the field under the adverse conditions she found.
This work required a whole lot more caution than normal when covering a different type of disaster story, like a flood for example. There’s water there, and mud, and you can sink and all, but that’s only water. This red sludge is toxic.
We knew it was alkaline, with a potent bite. We knew it was a lot more dense than regular silt, making moving around in it very tiring – and its toxicity meant no touching, so we could not hold onto anything for support. Falling over was not an option, because the toxic stuff could damage you to the point of visible wounds or cause damage to your eyes, and render your gear inoperable.
My hands were sore and dry and cracked open after a few days, even though I did not exactly touch the stuff all the time.
Wearing a mask was a health necessity, but it made work very difficult as your breath fogs up the eye piece. Wiping it was not an option, on account of your filthy hands.
Rubber boots are part of the regular gear we carry around, but this mud required much more than that. We needed to get special chest-height rubber boot-suits to defend against the mud. When the mud began to dry up we took to wearing Tyvek suits instead, on top of the regular rubber boots.
The most memorable part will remain the human side of the catastrophe. The affected village is home to 750 people. Some of them recognized us by face on the second or third day, and by the end of the week, most waved when they saw us. We were forced to snap out of our professional role and to offer them help, such as providing medical aid.
Then they would look at us and say, “Thank you, I’m really sorry I cannot invite you over for lunch. You know, my house has been torn down…” I approached an elderly man as he stood on the street, and asked him if everything was OK. He replied “Yeah, sure, it’s just that it’s this time in the afternoon I normally have my glass of wine…” Then he looked at me for a second and broke down crying. You move on, do your job, then at night in your room you think back and it tears you apart.
One night, a colleague from AP and I were forced to bunk down in a gambling parlor. We could not go to a community shelter because the town was being evacuated and we feared the police might kick us out. We convinced the parlor’s owner to allow us to stay there. Without access to clean water, by morning my face had begun to burn because of exposure to flying dust particles from the sludge. My throat burned as well. I took a walk outside to relieve the burn. It worked, but we were increasingly worried about the toxins in the air.
One day, I was sending pictures along with a few colleagues at a local bar. I went to the bathroom and sat there when I heard the street sirens going off and people screaming. The dam wall had gone down at another spot too, another wave of sludge was on its way towards us. I ran out, with my jeans halfway unbuttoned, and saw people in a panic. I rushed to get my gear, my colleagues, my car, and to get to a high point where we were safe and, not least, where we could see the disaster from.
It turned out to be a false alarm. For once, I was relieved I missed the shot.