I spent 30 minutes in Kolontar before my mouth became dry and the stench of the red sludge became so unbearable that I had to put on a mask. The village is a few hundred metres from the source of the spill and it was here that the sludge hit first. Some houses were almost washed away. Excavators and other vehicles were circling around the buildings and the drivers were wearing their own white masks because of the smell. It was the same story in Devecser, where I arrived seven hours after the disaster struck. Even in the darkness of the early evening, the deep-red colour dominated everything. Devecser is a small town with little more than 5,000 inhabitants, and it is far from any big city. Damaged cars, tree branches, torn gates and broken wooden fences lay everywhere. It looked like the aftermath of a devastating storm – except that everything was covered with a thick layer of red sludge.
The flooded parts of the town were already evacuated. The streets were deserted except for a few firefighters, trying to clean the pavements with high-pressure hoses. They weren't wearing special protective clothes either, though they warned me that the material was toxic.
One pointed to my boots already covered by the sludge and told me I should make sure I clean them when I left.
Most of the houses were dark and apparently abandoned, but a few tenants were still inside. Either they had not left because they could take refuge on the upper floors or they had returned to their homes despite the warnings of the police not to.
One woman, Zsuzsa Toldi, who had been watching the disaster unfold from the top floor of her home, told me that she had seen people coated with red sludge up to their necks running away. She said others had been trapped for hours in a post office around the corner – saved from the sludge by a door that was strong enough to keep it out.
Jozsef Kocsi, a softly speaking man in his sixties, was less fortunate. His yard and house were flooded and he was struggling to clean the floor. He had no idea how the sludge would be removed. Even if it was, he was worried about what the long-term effects would be. It was a widely shared view. The locals are afraid that plants and trees will die and children will be unable to play in the contaminated gardens.
Andras Petho is a reporter for the Hungarian news website Origo.hu