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Hunt on for missing gas blast boss

Union Carbide's boss cannot be found as victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster continue their fight for justice

Jason Burke, Chief Reporter, The Observer (UK)

Sunday March 12, 2000

It has been a slow news week at the Vero Beach Press Journal. It usually is. Little troubles the thousands of retired couples who have chosen to spend their golden years walking along the east Florida resort's palm-lined beaches or enjoying the famous Champagne Brunch at P. Martin's Elegant Oceanside Restaurant.

One story the journal hasn't covered is the recent mysterious disappearance of one local resident: Warren S. Anderson, of 1111 South Catalina Court. Though his absence has gone largely unnoticed in Vero Beach, it has provoked fury in a steaming, stinking city in India. Anderson was chief executive officer of the Union Carbide chemicals factory in Bhopal which exploded in 1984, killing up to 13,000 people.

When, earlier this month, lawyers arrived at the Florida address where Anderson has lived since retiring from Union Carbide 12 years ago they found the house empty. And New York's finest private investigators have so far been unable to track him down.

The lawyers, who hoped to serve a summons on Anderson to appear in a Manhattan courtroom, were acting on behalf of a coalition of Bhopal victims' groups who have launched a new legal action against the former chief executive and a host of senior Union Carbide executives. In a suit brought in a Manhattan court at the end of last year they claim that Anderson ought to be punished for his role in the Bhopal disaster.

'We want to get him before he dies,' says Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group Information and Action, one of those who is behind the new legal action. Sarangi and a dozen others have put their names to an 85-page complaint that alleges that Anderson and Union Carbide 'demonstrated a reckless and depraved indifference to human life' in violation of international law.

The complaint describes how at around midnight on 2 December 1984 a massive leak of lethal methyl isocyanate and other toxic chemicals, used for making insecticides, spilt out from storage tank number 610 of the Union Carbide plant and blanketed the city for miles around with a deadly white fog. Thousands were killed instantly from exposure to the gas as they slept or fled through the narrow alleys of the residential areas surrounding the plant. Hundreds of thousands more were maimed and have been badly disabled ever since.

Mass burials and cremations following the incident mean the estimates of the number of dead vary widely, but official Indian government figures suggest that at least 1,700 died in the 48 hours following the leak. Unofficial estimates indicate at least 6,000 fatalities in the days immediately after the disaster and an Indian court has accepted claims that the final death toll exceeded 13,000. One of the victims listed on the complaint, Sajjida Bano, describes how, having lost her husband to a previous gas leak at the plant in 1981, she watched her son drowning in his own bodily fluids after the disaster three years later. Bano herself was affected by the leak and is still badly disabled. Another victim de-scribes watching his parents and five brothers and sisters choke to death. Several eyewitnesses, quoted in the complaint, described scenes of terror and confusion as Bhopal residents tried to flee the lethal gas. 'The railway station was a charnel house,' said one victim last week.

Union Carbide, which had sales of $5.9 billion last year, says that all claims were settled with a $420 million payment made to victims or their relatives and the Bhopal city government in 1989. Campaigners say that this merely settled Union Carbide's civil liability and that Anderson and his fellow officers are all also guilty of 'culpable homicide' or manslaughter..

Sarangi, and other campaigners, claim that much of the compensation was funded by insurance companies and that the 'real culprits' have never been made to pay. 'If the people who do this don't suffer themselves, there is no reason for them - or other big companies - to make sure it doesn't happen again.'

Union Carbide has claimed that the gas leak was caused by a saboteur. However, the complaint claims that sloppy management was responsible. The campaigners say that Union Carbide enforced different 'racially discriminatory' standards of safety on their US and Indian plants respectively.

Though a computerised safety system was installed on the company's plants in the US, there was none in Bhopal and, the complaint alleges, new safety procedures implemented at plants in West Virginia were ignored. Also, it says, sirens in the Bhopal plant were turned off to avoid causing 'undue panic' among the local population over 'routine minor leaks'.

Abdul Jabbar, who heads a gas victims' women organisation, has written an open letter to US President Bill Clinton, who will be visiting in ten days, demanding Anderson's extradition. He will be leading a series of rallies in New Delhi in the days before Clinton's arrival.

The Indian government is still pursuing a criminal case against Indian staff of the plant and nine locally recruited executives are currently in custody.'

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