Bhopal 1984: The night the town turned into a gas chamber

GV Krishnan, My Mysore, December 3, 2006
December 2-3 night has significance for my family. We are Bhopal survivors. I read in the papers that people in Bhopal observed the 22nd anniversary of the gas tragedy with a silent procession by the gas victims. Even after two decades since the tragedy the gas victims are still on a protest mode for relief and rehabilitation. Over 40 tonnes of the lethal methyl isocyanate – a toxic substance whose formula remains an industrial secret that is zealously guarded by the company – leaked from the Chhola Road Union Carbide pesticide plant, Bhopal, claiming 3,000 lives and leaving thousands of others with, what is suspected, genetic and reproductive after-effects. The pregnant women exposed to the gas that spread to much of the Bhopal town had suffered abortion or gave birth to stillborns.
For several days in the wake of the disaster all nine cremation grounds in town were kept busy round the clock. There were reports of collective cremation of bodies to clear the backlog in the first few days of the gas leak. As many as 191 bodies were cremated as “unclaimed.” Many of them were rail passengers who collapsed in the waiting hall and platforms of Bhopal railway station. Over 85,000 residents fled Bhopal in the wake of the gas leak.
It happened late on a Sunday night, when the town had gone to sleep. I was woken up by commotion on the street. When my wife opened the balcony door for a look-see we sensed irritation in our eyes. I thought the police might have burst teargas shells somewhere in the vicinity to disperse a mob. People were out on the street, heading towards the lake close to our flat in Professors’ Colony. Within a few minutes I got a call from N. Rajan, a neighbor and editor of the local daily, Hitavada. He said there was a gas leak in the Union Carbide pesticides plant and residents in the old city were fleeing their houses to escape the gas that caused irritation in the eyes, vomiting and breathlessness.
Before long we felt the effect of the gas in our house, though we were more than five kilometers away from the Carbide plant. And, like scores of others in our neighborhood, we locked our place and took to the street in a bid to outpace the drift of the poisonous gas. The four of us – my wife, 12-year-old son and I, along with our dog Bitsy – joined hundreds of others on the road. Many were rushing ahead in panic, hoping to get as far away and as quickly as they could from the Union Carbide plant. We could not keep pace, which turned out to be a blessing. For those who were in a rush, and breathing heavily, inhaled more of the toxic gas, developing breathlessness. We saw some of them vomit and collapse on the wayside.
As we fled our houses, Rajan, who also represented Patriot newspaper, and I realised that we had a major story to handle. I was then the Bhopal correspondent of The Times of India. But the story had to wait. Besides, it was past edition time. My immediate concern was finding a place that was unaffected by the leaking gas. We spent the night at a relation’s place in Arera Colony.
The morning after the tragedy was bright and sunny. I started working the phone for information. Among the more resourceful newsmen in Bhopal those days was Taroon Bhaduri of The Statesman and Abhishek Bachchan’s grandpa. Bhaduri told me about a call he received from someone high up in Union Carbide. Initial reports put the gas leak toll at five and the company executive said the situation had been brought under control. It was evident that the Union Carbide spin doctors were already at work.
Later in the morning Rajan and I found that all hell had broken loose at Hamidia Hospital. The OPD verandah, outer lawns and even the driveway were littered with people who had collapsed in fatigue and complained of breathlessness. Doctors said they were running short of drugs. To cope with a spate of patients that continued coming through the night the hospital authorities sent out their staff to buy up from drugstores in town all available stock of sodium thiosulphate – antidote to cyanide poisoning.
The tragedy of it was that the gas victims did not respond to the drug. The toll mounted by the hour. Postmortem indicated that the deaths were due to respiratory failure following pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs). It was found that the lungs of gas victims contained 250 cc of fluid and weighed 900 grams against the normal lungs weight of 400 to 500 grams.
The gas that leaked out of the pesticides plant was methyl isocyanate (MIC). And doctors in Bhopal administered drugs for cyanide poisoning. The ‘cyanate’ in MIC was quite another devil. No one had a clue to the formulation of MIC, which was the trade secret of the US multinational. The Union Carbide stonewalled all queries on possible antidote to MIC while the gas affected were dying by the hundreds. All that the Union Carbide could be persuaded to divulge was a statement saying that methyl isocyanate had nothing to do with cyanide and that the two substances had entirely different effects on tissues and human health.
Retired Times of India correspondent, based in Mysore. Runs www.mymysore.com, a civic initiative on the web; writes a column -DatelineMysore – for www.zine5.com

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