After the Blast

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The Netherlands, despite being Europe's most densely populated country, has always had a knack for quaint urban landscapes, with bike paths, flower boxes and pleasant pedestrian zones. But what's the worth of a pretty cityscape when it can all be blown sky high? That's the question being asked by the people of Enschede, on the country's German border, after a fireworks factory in the middle of their residential area exploded on May 13, killing at least 17 of them and injuring more than 900.

On Friday, Prime Minister Wim Kok and Crown Prince Willem Alexander led a silent procession through the stunned city of 150,000. They could offer some solace, perhaps, but little explanation for the explosion of the S.E. Fireworks warehouse, which razed 400 houses in the largely working-class and immigrant Mekkelholt neighborhood. Enschede fire chief Aad Groos, who lost four of his men in the catastrophe, was at a loss. "What happened there cannot be explained," he said.

The fire chief's bafflement has only fueled speculation about the cause of the disaster. Had storage bunkers been left open? Was magnesium, which reacts violently with water, illegally stored in the warehouse? Did the site contain a secret Dutch army ammunitions depot? Or was this the work of an arsonist whose activities have plagued the town recently? Public prosecutors investigating the explosion issued international warrants for the arrest of the owners of S.E. Fireworks, Rudi Bakker and Wilhelm Pater, on Thursday. Officials said Pater walked into a police station late on Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, outraged residents were asking why the fireworks factory was allowed in a residential neighborhood in the first place. Even the town's mayor said he hadn't known it was there. Yet the firm's papers are in order. The town council approved the company's initial business permit back in 1977, and has extended it at least three times. But safe on paper obviously doesn't mean safe in practice and that fact now has residents of a trailer park in the eastern part of Enschede terrified.

Unlike people in Mekkelholt, they know exactly the identity of their neighbor of more than 20 years: Haarman Fireworks, an importer licensed to store 500 tons of fireworks five times more than what blew up at S.E. Fireworks. Neighbors who have been buying their New Year's fireworks from Klaas Haarman for years are now petitioning him to move. If it were to explode, says resident Reina Battels, "We'd all be dead." Haarman employee Friede Heyneman says her boss is willing to relocate, but needs help to foot the bill. In the meantime, says Heyneman, "We think that what we do here is right. We follow the regulations."

The Dutch aren't alone in rethinking those regulations. A deadly explosion in a Spanish fireworks factory just two days after the Enschede blast led European Commission President Romano Prodi to call for tighter fireworks rules throughout Europe. Similarly lethal explosions occurred last week in Mexico and the U.S. too. Unfortunately, admits Enschede's deputy mayor, Erik Helder, it sometimes takes a tragedy to get authorities to think again. Only one Enschede resident complained when S.E. Fireworks applied for a permit to store more fireworks in 1997. The town council granted it on the grounds that issues of "urbanism" were not applicable. Those days, says Helder, are no more. But neither is the neighborhood of Mekkelholt.