Hungary United in Wake of Catastrophe

A terrible catastrophe occurred in Hungary on Monday. Toxic red sludge from a factory's reservoir poured over the little village of Kolontár, killing six people and injuring hundreds, while leaving many of the citizens without a home or their livelihood.

We were front-page news, and the pictures in the international media made my country look like the poor third world, where greed and neglect result in deaths. I know how pictures and news like this affect views, which can be lasting and difficult to change.

I used to make a living officially worrying about the image of my country, when I was the Hungarian ambassador to the United States. I now worry about it as a private citizen.

I would like to make my own modest contribution to help repair the damage caused by the sludge to our image. This disaster, whether caused by human error, neglect, or something else unknown to us, is a tragedy Hungary has never seen before. In this terrible situation, the real measure of the maturity of my country is not in the why and how it happened, but in the way the government and society at large reacted.

Rescue teams were on the spot almost instantly and the injured were efficiently transferred by medevac teams to hospitals in the region. The special emergency arm of the government efficiently dispatched assets and staff to try to avert or minimize further disaster, and immediate action was taken to lower toxic levels before the red sludge reached the neighboring rivers.

The local residents are receiving immediate physical and material support to create a roof over their heads. Society at large has moved fast to support relief organizations with donations. The prime minister did not use his presence as an opportunity to create an image for himself or his government. He did not use it as political capital. His visit was somber and humane without political overtones. No one jumped to conclusions, naming those responsible too soon or attacking the private sector in an attempt to score points with the public. Instead, they referred it to the judiciary. These are the true signs of a mature country.