WHAT HAPPENED IN BHOPAL – December 3, 1984
“It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chilies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran. Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they just kept falling, and were trampled on by other people. People climbed and scrambled over each other to save their lives – even cows were running and trying to save their lives and crushing people as they ran.”
Survivor, Champa Devi Shukla
In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Many were crushed in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas.
December 3rd 1984 at midnight, from the factory, which so many had learned to fear, a thin plume of white vapor began streaming from a high structure. Caught by the wind, it became a haze and blew downward to mix with smoke coming from somewhere nearer to the ground. A dense fog formed. Nudged by the wind, it rolled across the road and into the alleys on the other side. This massive cloud of poison was so dense and heavy people were immediately blinded. Gasping for breath led to suffocation and everywhere people on the streets were choking on their own blood and vomit:
“People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion” said Champa Devi Shukla.
Within the first few hours bodies mounted on the streets and by daybreak, they piled high. The army dumped the bodies in the river for lack of space, which caused logjams against the arches of bridges. A body count for that night estimates at around 12,000, put forward by those individuals who were forced to dispose of the bodies with their own hands. There is no definite death count for that night, but we know that at least 15,000 were killed immediately following the gas leak.
As the death toll rose rapidly, medical staff attempted to stop the convulsing, vomiting and agony. They were forced to deal with hazardous material without prior knowledge of its effects. When contacted during the leak, Union Carbide blithely assured them that the gas which was killing thousands was “nothing more than a potent tear gas” and that victims merely had to “wash their eyes with water”. Union Carbide, as the owner of the pesticide factory in this residential area had both a business responsibility and ethical obligation to release all information on how to deal with the chemicals they were producing. Had the correct protocol been in place, doctors would have been able to treat the victims and more than likely prevented thousands of deaths.
The Dow Chemical Company, based in Midland, Michigan, USA, acquired Union Carbide’s assets and liabilities when Dow purchased the company in 2001. As the Polluter Pays principle still holds, when Dow bought Union Carbide, on paper, they took all responsibility for what happened. To this day, the treatment of the Bhopal victims is impeded because Dow-Carbide callously refuses to share all its medical information on the toxic effects of the gases released that night, regarding the information as a “trade secret”.
“That night” hasn’t ended. Dow has made sure of that. By refusing to clean up the site, the poisons and toxins continue to get into the blood streams and systems of residents in the area, causing more illness, disease and suffering. These people don’t have a choice though. Everyday they ingest water that is so contaminated that children are too often born with genetic defects hindering any kind of normal living. Dow’s abandoned poisons particularly affect women and children. Due to the remaining hazardous wastes and contaminated water, women suffer from menstrual problems, premature miscarriages and often their babies are born with such horrific defects; they need specialized medical care, which has never been provided for by those at fault. Even the breast milk of nursing mothers has been contaminated. 25 years on, the chemical terror won’t end until Dow cleans up its killing fields.