KOLONTAR, Hungary — A lethal torrent of toxic red sludge from a metal refinery engulfed towns in Hungary, burning villagers through their clothes and threatening an ecological disaster Tuesday as it swept toward the Danube River.
The flood of caustic red mud triggered a state of emergency declaration by Hungarian officials. At least four people were killed, six were missing and 120 injured, many with burns.
Hundreds were evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster Monday, when a gigantic sludge reservoir burst its banks at an alumina plant in Ajka, a town 100 miles southwest of Budapest, the capital. The torrent of sludge inundated homes, swept cars off roads and damaged bridges.
Named for its bright red color, the material is a waste product in aluminum production that contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested.
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In Kolontar, the town closest to the plant, Erzsebet Veingartner was in her kitchen when the 12-foot-high wave of red slurry hit, sweeping away everything in its path.
"I looked outside and all I saw was the stream swelling like a huge wave," the 61-year-old widow said Tuesday as she surveyed her backyard, still under 6 feet of noxious muck.
"I lost all my chickens, my ducks, my Rottweiler, and my potato patch. My late husband's tools and machinery were in the shed and it's all gone," sobbed the woman, who gets by on a $350 monthly pension. "I have a winter's worth of firewood in the basement and it's all useless now."
Emergency workers wearing masks and chemical protection gear rushed to pour 1,000 tons of plaster into the Marcal River in an attempt to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing on to the Danube some 45 miles away. Nearby, desperate villagers waded through the toxic mud trying to salvage possessions with little more than rubber gloves as protection.
The 1,775-mile-long Danube passes through some of the continent's most pristine vistas from its origins as a Black Forest spring in Germany to its end point as a majestic stretch of water emptying into the Black Sea.