Vizag gas leak kills at least 11, impacts another 1,000 people; disturbing visuals bring back memories of Bhopal gas tragedy
As India was grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, another mishap at a plastic factory in Andhra Pradesh's Vishakhapatnam district killed at least 11 people, including one child and lead to the hospitalistaion of hundreds others.
The incident also led to hundreds being hospitalised.
Styrene gas leaked out in the in the early hours of Thursday from an LG Polymers plant at RR Venkatapuram village near Vishakhapatnam and quickly spread, impacting about 1,000, people in its five-kilometre radius. Disturbing visuals of people falling unconscious and gasping for breath brought back memories of one of India's deadliest industrial mishaps, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Meanwhile, the ensuing panic lead to rumours of a second leak, which was later rubbished by the local police.
"Reports of a second leak at #LGPolymers premises are false. Maintenance team was repairing the system and some vapour was let out. There is no second leak," Andhra Pradesh Police tweeted.
Disturbing visuals from near site bring back memories of Bhopal gas tragedy
Hours after the styrene gas leak around 2.30 am from the multinational plastic plant, scores of people could be seen lying unconscious on sidewalks, near ditches and on the road, raising fears of a major industrial disaster.
Among the dead was a child and two people who fell into a borewell while fleeing the vapours from the plant, getting ready to reopen after the lockdown.
As rescue officers and police personnel rushed to take people to hospital and revive them, many people could be seen gasping for breath as they staggered their way to safety, dazed and disoriented. Some tried to walk but fainted and fell to the ground.
The grim scenes were reminiscent of the Bhopal gas leak, the world's worst industrial disaster, in which more than 3,000 people were killed and lakhs affected when methyl isocyanate gas leaked out from a Union Carbide plant on the intervening night of 2-3 December, 1984.
In disturbing visuals from the spot that flashed across news and social media, a man, his eyes rolling back, was being put into an ambulance. Another just slumped to the ground near a scooter, stunned and looking blank. Two children hugged each other as a rescue worker tried to revive a woman, possibly their mother. Those who could speak narrated what had happened. People could also be seen sitting on the kerb, trying to explain the events of the morning. Cattle and birds were also knocked unconscious by the gas leak.
Though the source of the leak was contained in the morning itself, the effects were seen for many hours after. Daybreak revealed the full magnitude of the tragedy.
Hundreds of villagers, most of them children, suffered from irritation in their eyes, breathlessness, nausea and rashes.
Everyone helped as they could, some offering first aid, others water, dabbing and wiping people's faces. Those affected were rushed to hospitals in autos and two-wheelers while government workers and others tried to assist in whatever way possible.
11 dead, 800 evacuated, at least 20 in critical condition
At least 11 people died due to the leak and at least 1,000 people were impacted. The toll from the accident could further go up with at least 20 people on ventilator support. Besides, 246 people with health complications are undergoing treatment at Visakhapatnam's King George Hospital, police said.
About 800 people were evacuated and most needed only first aid.
The NDRF chief said door-to-door search was done by NDRF personnel to help unconscious and semi-conscious people living in nearby areas. "We will stay back in that area till we are absolutely sure that the situation is under control. We will be at the incident site till it is required.
Narendra Modi chairs meet, MHA says monitoring situation closely
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of the NDMA, of which he is the chairperson, and took stock of the situation on the ground as well as the response that has taken place till now and the response required from across the board.
Subsequently, the National Crisis Management Committee, headed by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, met and designed specific steps that needed to be taken to contain the effect and ensure the safety of people who were affected, and manage the emergency on ground.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah described the incident as "disturbing" and said the central government is closely monitoring the situation. He said he is praying for the well-being of the people of Visakhapatnam.
Furthermore, the Centre also allowed airlifting of a special chemical from Gujarat which is used as a neutraliser to avoid any further damage due to the gas leak.
A specialised CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) team of the NDRF was also flown in from Pune.
Leakage minimised but not plugged completely
Addressing a joint press conference in Delhi in the afternoon National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and NDMA officials said leakage from the factory had been reduced to minimal but NDRF personnel would be at the spot till it is totally plugged.
The gas leak took place as the plastic factory that was closed during the lockdown was being prepared for resumption of operations, NDRF Director General SN Pradhan said.
The city's district magistrate's office also confirmed this.
"In morning between 3.45 to 5.45 am the emission rate was extremely high. In fact, standing there was a great difficulty. We could not measure the level of gas at that time because we could not enter the village. We measured concentration at about 9.30 am and it was 1-2.5 ppm and now the rates have gone up. So we need to monitor is again for next 48 hours to say if we are in safe zone. For it to reach to safety level, the emission has to come down to zero. The emissions are still continuing to happen," the collector's office told News18.
State govt orders probe, announces Rs 1 cr ex-gratia for deceased
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy ordered a probe into the matter, state Director General of Police D Gautam Sawang said.
"How the gas leaked and why the neutraliser at the plant did not prove effective in containing the leak will all be investigated. Styrene, though, is not a poisonous gas and can be fatal only if inhaled in excess quantity," Sawang said.
The chief minister also announced Rs 1 crore each as relief to kin of people killed. Reddy also visited the sick at the King George Hospital in Vishakhapatnam.
Styrene, a chemical used to make synthetic rubber and resins, affects the central nervous system, throat, skin, eyes and some other parts of the body.
State Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said the LG Polymers unit was supposed to reopen post-lockdown on Thursday. "We are trying to reach out to the top management of the (South Korean) company...our immediate priority is to arrest the leak and ensure proper medicare to the affected people," he said.
LG Chem, which operates the plant, said it is cooperating with Indian authorities to help residents and employees.
"The gas leakage is now under control, but the leaked gas can cause nausea and dizziness, so we are investing every effort to ensure proper treatment is provided swiftly," LG Chem said in a statement.
"We are investigating the extent of damage and the exact cause of the leak and deaths," it added. Stating that the plant operations were suspended because of coronavirus lockdown, the firm said none of its employees have died in the accident.
The leak was noticed by company staff who were reportedly inspecting machines to restart the factory and raised an alarm.
Experts also worked to control and neutralise the styrene vapours with chemicals.
"Officials are using inhibitors to neutralise the vapours. Slowly the vapours are reducing. It was not arrested fully.
They are using neutralisers such as TBC (4-tert-Butylcatechol (TBC)," Joint Chief Inspector of Factories, Visakhapatnam, J Siva Sankar Reddy told PTI.
Shramik Trains hit due to tragedy
The accident impacted the movement of trains from Visakhapatnam, including at least nine Shramik Special Trains taking migrants to various places .
Staff at the SCMN station also experienced burning in the eyes and suffocation. Train movement had stopped across SCMN from 8.35 am to 12 noon.
With inputs from PTI
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