Inside the 'Zone': PJM Visits the Red Sludge Disaster in Hungary

Yesterday I was allowed into the restricted area, as well as the strictly sealed off zone, courtesy of Hungarian Baptist Aid (HBA), led by my good friend Reverend Sandor Szenczy. He was also in Mississippi in 2005 to help victims of Katrina. Because of his help, I am able give readers of PJM a first-hand, exclusive report on the situation.

Our guide Laszlo, an experienced member of HBA, found two of the eight victims.

It is worse than I would have ever imagined. The little village of Kolontár is now empty -- only emergency teams, military, police, fire brigades, and rescue teams are allowed in. The village of Devecser, ten kilometers away, was less damaged, but it too looks like a post-nuclear strike zone. Just military vehicles, and men and women in white protective suits and masks.

The sludge poured over a territory of more than 40 sq. kilometers. The height of the flow was almost 3 meters as it reached the little village of Kolontár. The part of the village which was most devastated was only about four kilometers from the dam which gave way. The sludge broke into houses, and washed away a bridge, road crossings, and railroad tracks. To understand the order of magnitude: the break in the dam is as high as a ten-story building. You can imagine the amount of sludge and the energy generated.

All the citizens were temporarily evacuated and brought to safety. Some will never be able, or willing, to move back. I saw collapsed houses and destroyed gardens. I looked into homes through the shattered glass windows, seeing rooms with furniture strewn all over the place. One striking image: artwork which appears to be the Virgin Mary hanging askew on the wall, with stains of red from the sludge.

One new house was occupied for only two days before it was hit. Cars, tractors and other heavy machinery, household items, and toys litter the streets and fields. Trees, fields, vineyards were destroyed. The last time I had seen anything like this was when I visited the 9th Ward in New Orleans.

I heard first-hand accounts. A family which had just recently rebuilt their life after the loss of a son in a train accident two years ago lost a little baby in the mudslide. Their other son is still in serious condition at a hospital.

They told me about a mother who had held her two children above the sludge, one on each arm for several hours before help arrived. I heard the tragic story of a local activist who did not hear the warnings by fellow citizens that the bridge was about to give in. It collapsed under him. In his car, he was washed away by the sludge and died.

An elderly lady was found out in the fields in a heap of debris -- almost eight kilometers away from her home.

One of the burn victims told me that her wounds are healing well, but they are now worried about the long-term impact of the dust.