Remembering the Ghislenghien disaster

29th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

A year after 24 people were killed in a massive gas explosion at Ghislenghien, we talk with the police officer who spent 11 months in hospital recovering from serious burns injuries. Aaron Gray-Block reports.

On Saturday 30 July 2005, victims and family will visit the site of the Ghislenghien gas explosion in Belgium to pay their respects to those who didn't survive.

A leaking gas pipe exploded at Ghislenghien shortly before 9am on 30 July 2004

One of those people returning will be Stephane Delfosse, a chief-inspector with the nearby Ath police force.

Together with a colleague, Delfosse went to the site of the gas leak at Ghislenghien (Gellingen) on the morning of 30 July 2004 to assist emergency response efforts and evacuate the area if necessary.

He talked with the fire brigade chief, but got the impression that firefighters did not know the seriousness of the situation and were "not expecting this incredible explosion".

"I arrived at 8.35am and 15 minutes later the explosion happened. We had no time to do anything," Delfosse tells Expatica in a phone interview. "I was 20 metres away from the explosion".

Delfosse tried to protect his head and take cover from the full force of the blast, but was still badly burned in the massive fireball that killed 24 people, including his colleague police officer.

"I tried to rapidly go to a street near the industrial site. I was burned, but it was the only solution for me to live. My memory stops at this moment, but a person found me and I went to hospital in Ath and then to Brussels," he says.

Coma and recovery

Delfosse spent almost 11 months in hospital before being discharged from the military hospital in Neder-over-Heembeek on 16 June. He was the last of the 132 injured victims to be released from hospital.

The massive explosion ripped through an industrial site at Ghislenghien

"I was [kept] in a coma for the first four months and have no memory and then afterwards it was very difficult. There are no words to describe it," he says.

"I was very well supported by my wife and family and the doctors of this hospital. They are very professional. I am alive because they were there at the right moment."

Delfosse's youngest of his two daughters was five months old at the time of the explosion and he did not see her for the next six months.

"I didn't recognise her," he recalls, adding that his eldest daughter, who is now eight, was given psychological counselling.

"I am not like I was a year ago. I lost some fingers on my hand and my face has changed. But the most important thing is to be with my wife and two little girls. I am alive and I know at this moment the importance of life.

"It is normal for my family to look at me like they did a year ago. Beauty is not important. I am always the same man inside my head. Nothing has changed."

Delfosse suffered third-degree burns to 60 percent of his body and underwent 25 operations. His recovery was fraught with various complications.

He walked with difficulty again in February, but will never walk again with ease because his knees were irreparably damaged in the explosion.

And Delfosse cannot read yet either because his eyesight is poor. Nevertheless, the doctors have also said his sight will slowly return.

"There is now an end coming to a long battle. A hospitalisation for such a long period is unusual. Delfosse has a good will, but will still need to rehabilitate for several months," anaesthetist Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Pirson said last month.

Compensation and work

Delfosse says his situation was classified as a workplace accident so all of his medical expenses were paid by insurance.

Funerals were held for 24 people, while 132 others were injured

But others have not yet received compensation despite the fact insurance association Assuralia and gas network administrator Fluxys deposited EUR 2.2 million in a compensation fund to cover people who were uninsured.

This money is on top of the EUR 28.5 million paid to insured victims.

In Delfosse's case, his insurance might also cover future income. "I am not sure at this moment I can work in future. Experts and doctors will decide for me," he says, adding that insur

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