Rhinelanders are known for a cheery disposition that counters the dour German cliche, but two back-to-back disasters have tested their endurance to Job-like limits.
Two weeks after the worst floods in at least a century ripped through the region, claiming 179 dead and causing at least €5 billion in damage, the region is gripped by a second, invisible fear.
A massive explosion at a chemicals disposal plant in Leverkusen, near Cologne, on Tuesday killed two workers, with five more missing presumed dead and 31 injured.
For the first time on Thursday investigators were able to enter the charred crater left by the explosion, so big it was felt 40km away, but still have no leads on its cause.
Meanwhile a second, scientific report, expected on Friday, is expected to give more details on the oily, dusty deposits Leverkusen locals have found on their cars, plants and windows – deposits that some fear are already in their lungs.
Fire broke out on Tuesday morning at a chemical waste incineration plant at the Leverkusen Chempark, triggering an additional blaze at adjacent storage tanks containing highly-flammable solids. Thick black clouds billowed from the fire for almost four hours and local health authorities have urged people not to touch any sooty deposits they discovered, fearing they may be toxic.
“We have to assume that the clouds of smoke, dioxins, polychlorides and furans were carried into the surrounding residential areas,” said the Leverkusen health authority in a warning.
All three chemicals can, in high concentrations, be cancerous or affect hormone levels and reproductive health. With just 800m separating the plant from residential areas, locals were urged to avoid fruit or vegetables from the region and leave untouched any dust they discover on windows or elsewhere.
Germany’s Aerospace Centre has warned that – after studies of satellite images from the time of the explosion and its aftermath – it is difficult to say how far, and in what direction, any particles may have spread.
In the “Feierabend” garden allotment, in the shadow of the chemical park, residents say the explosion was dramatic – but that they are remaining calm.
“Some gardens said they had some soot on their tomatoes but we’ll just wait and see,” said Stefan Strehl, deputy chairman of the allotment committee, to The Irish Times. “We’re about 200 metres away here, everyone’s fine, we’re not reckoning with a second Chernobyl.”
But some German environmental experts are already drawing parallels to the 1976 explosion in a chemicals plant in Seveseo near Milan, which required six years of decontamination work on soil in the area. The local population was evacuated and, because of the dioxin risk, pregnant women were encouraged to consider terminations because of the likelihood of foetus damage.
Back in Germany, some 70km down the Rhine river and across state lines in the Ahrweiler region, locals say the real battle has begun after the worst floods there in 700 years. Of the 179 victims, some 138 were from the small federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate – and just half have been identified conclusively.
Rescue workers say the recovery process is time-intensive: flying over the flood area, landing near wrecked houses and vehicles and then approaching by foot for a closer look.
Many bodies have been discovered in waterlogged cellars, others were found in the mangled wreckage of cars, swept along by flood waters. Countless houses and apartment blocks were damaged – or washed away entirely – complicating the identification process using standard DNA tests.
“If you have no houses any more, it’s difficult to get DNA material for a comparison,” said Roger Lewentz, state interior minister.
He added that many bodies may have been washed into rivers and will be recovered later downstream – or not at all.
At a press conference he warned of infection dangers from “hazardous” waste – in particular from damaged refrigerators and vehicles. But he said his region had experienced an “unprecedented wave” of support from around the country.
With about 60 bridges destroyed in the region, thousands of soldiers have been deployed to erect emergency river crossings for rescue and recovery vehicles.
Local undertakers are working to capacity, said Lewentz, often lacking storage space for recovered bodies – and drawing on support from colleagues from neighbouring regions.