Indians recall horrifying moments they inhaled toxic gas leak in industrial disaster

At least 11 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in the incident

Powered by automated translation

Venkataraman and his wife Van Lakshmi were asleep as the toxic gas slowly filled their one-room house in RR Venkatapuram early on Thursday.

And even after they woke, the couple decided the smell was a disinfectant that was sprayed to control coronavirus.

But an hour later, they and their two young children were gasping for air as neighbours called about a gas leak at a chemical plant near their home in Visakhapatnam, in India’s Andhra Pradesh state.

"We saw people running helter-skelter in the village and screaming 'Run, run, run'," Mr Venkataraman, 42, told The National.

Within minutes of fleeing their house, the family collapsed from exposure to toxic styrene gas, which had by then completely enveloped their small village of 500 households.

Mr Venkataraman, a tuk-tuk driver, regained consciousness, only to find his 35-year-old wife motionless as his children whimpered near by.

“I found my wife lying near a drain," he said. "I tried to wake her up but she had gone. She was already dead.

“There was no alarm from the factory, no siren. If we had known it was a gas leak, we would have never ignored that smell."

Gas leak at Indian plant kills at least nine

Gas leak at Indian plant kills at least nine

The ambulances and emergency workers arrived hours later as panic and chaos gripped the village.

The gas spread up to 3 kilometres, said India’s disaster management agency, which confirmed that more than 80 people were on ventilators in hospitals.

Indian authorities said at least 11 people, including two children were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in the incident.

It happened after two 5,000-tonne tanks at the plastics factory leaked early on Thursday morning.

Styrene gas is used in making plastic and was stored in the chemical plant owned by a South Korean battery maker, LG Polymer.

The factory had been shut since Indian authorities announced the coronavirus lockdown in mid-March.

The leak is believed to have taken place when the plant’s employees were preparing to resume operations as the country slowly reopens it industries.

Nearby residents said they woke up to burning eyes, skin irritation and difficulty breathing soon after the leak started about 2.30 am.

What followed was a night of mayhem and chaos.

Gopal Venkatraman, who runs a catering agency, said he was alerted by a factory employee about 4.30am and fled the village in his car with his wife and three children.

By then, Mr Venkatraman said, the entire village was shrouded in a thick haze of gas and the air was filled with a pungent smell as men ran looking for ways to escape the village and women cried with burning eyes.

“Many had fallen unconscious on the streets while fleeing the village for safety," he said. "There was complete chaos, only cries and screams,” Mr Venkatraman said.

“I saw four men struggling to breathe. One by one, they all collapsed. Blood was coming out of their noses and ears.

"It was a scary sight. My children were crying out of fear. We all were scared for our lives."

Shrisha, who has a three-day-old baby, feels lucky to have escaped in time after her neighbours came knocking to warn of the gas leak.

“There was a strong smell and my eyes were watery and burning,” Ms Shrisha said.

“I covered my child with a scarf and neighbours gave us lift in their car to leave the village. I couldn’t think of my parents or brothers. It was a terrifying sight.”

India has a poor record for workplace safety and deadly incidents are common across the country, where the lax implementation of laws is considered a major cause of these disasters.

The latest incident brought back memories of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, when more than 5,000 people died in the world’s biggest disaster after methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic gas, leaked at the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India.

Activists say more than 25,000 died and thousands of people are still suffering from the effects of the leak.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences to the affected families and said the government would ensure the victims were helped.

“Spoke to officials of MHA and NDMA regarding the situation in Visakhapatnam, which is being monitored closely," Mr Modi tweeted.

"I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam."

Thursday’s leak comes after two industrial mishaps in India left more than a dozen workers injured.

Seven workers were taken to hospital in Raipur city in central India on Thursday after being exposed to a poisonous gas, possibly methane, while cleaning a paper mill, officials said.

Another eight workers were burnt in a boiler blast at a government-run thermal power station in neighbouring Tamil Nadu state on Thursday, reportedly because the boiler overheated.