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Visakhapatnam, May 7, 2020
At least 11 people, including an eight-year-old girl, died and more than 240 others were undergoing treatment after styrene gas leaked from the LG Polymers factory at Venkatapuram here in the early hours of today and spread to nearby villages whose residents were sleeping and, therefore, caught unawares.
Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation officials said the tragedy occurred when the plant, closed for more than 40 days due to the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), was being restarted this morning.
The gas stored in tanks began leaking and spread in a radius of 3 km, affecting hundreds of people, many of whom came running out of their houses in panic and rushed to hospitals in whatever vehicles they could get.
Many people just fainted and fell on the roads even as they were trying to get to a hospital and others could be seen helping them.
Though the number of villages and the population affected had initially raised fears of many fatalities, the speed at which the police, disaster response force, revenue and other wings of the administration reacted ensured timely medical attention to the victims.
The presence of the police force on the ground due to the lockdown, the availability of medical personnel for the ongoing COVID-19 situation and diverting the buses arranged for transportation of migrant workers for evacuation saved the day for the authorities.
It was at around 3.45 a.m. that styrene gas leaked from the LG Polymers plant at RR Venkatapuram, apparently due to the failure of the safety system.
The high concentration of gas in the vicinity of the plant soon engulfed five surrounding villages, jolting the residents out of their sleep. With difficulty in breathing, irritation in eyes and nausea, they rushed out of their houses and ran helter-skelter.
Many including children and women collapsed while running and fell unconscious. As the survivors recounted, nobody knew what was happening and everyone wanted to save themselves.
Residential areas in a range of 1.5-2 km were affected by the gas leak. As styrene is a heavy gas, it did not spread but settled in the area surrounding the plant, affecting a population of 12,000.
While the tragedy claimed 11 lives, 340 people were rushed to the King George Hospital and other hospitals in the city. The condition of 15 of those affected is stated to be critical.
Officials said that 22 cows, calves, buffaloes, six stray dogs and a cat also perished in the incident.
It was through a call on dial 100 that the police received the alert about the gas leak. A Rakshak or police patrol vehicle nearby was alerted and it reached the scene within 10 minutes and alerted other Rakshak vehicles and fire services.
Soon, 108 ambulances rushed to Venkatapauram to shift the affected people to the hospital. The mike systems fitted to the police vehicles were used to appeal to the people to come out of their houses and reach safer places.
The Quick Reaction Team of the police, National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force, Andhra Pradesh State Police and other police forces were pressed into service. About 800 people were evacuated.
Police Commissioner R.K. Meena himself shifted the affected people to the hospital in his vehicle. One of his deputies took ill while evacuating people.
The police and other authorities also conducted door-to-door search to ensure that no one was left behind.
After the affected people were brought to King George and other hospitals, the focus shifted to their treatment. The authorities immediately mobilised additional human resources and equipment to provide medical treatment.
Indian Navy also chipped in. It provided five Portable Multi-feed Oxygen Manifold sets to the King George Hospital (KGH). Technical teams from the Naval Dockyard Visakhapatnam (NDV) rushed to the KGH to assist in quick installation to provide oxygen to a large number of patients.
The Portable Multi-feed Oxygen Manifold system was designed by the NDV to enable one jumbo size oxygen bottle to supply oxygen to six patients simultaneously during Covid-19 Pandemic. Officials said 25 such sets were provided to the district administration for use in Covid designated hospitals earlier.
A majority of those affected by the leak, which reminded people of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, were children, and close to 150 of them were undergoing treatment. Most of them were responding well to treatment, doctors said.
Apart from the eight-year-old girl, the dead included two senior citizens.
Speaking to the media, Andhra Pradesh's Director General of Police (DGP) Gautam Sawang said that, of the 246 people currently receiving treatment, 20 are on ventilators. Reports from other hospitals are also indicating that the condition of the hospitalised persons is gradually improving.
He said that water is one of the antidotes for styrene and so water has been sprayed in the air to neutralise the gas. "The entire Venkatapuram village has been cleared and around 700 people have been evacuated from there. Around 800 people were admitted to hospitals but most of them have been discharged. Around 240 people are still in hospitals."
Sawang said that forensic teams are looking into the incident to ascertain the cause.
Meanwhile the survivors undergoing treatment at various hospitals in Visakhapatnam, popularly known as Vizag, recounted their near-death encounter after the gas leak started around 2.30 a.m., while most of them were in deep slumber.
One of the women in King George Hospital said: "We could feel a strange smell. It was a very surreal feeling. Am I alive or dead? I could see people and animals lying on the ground. I don't know how I reached the hospital."
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Jagan Mohan Reddy held an emergency meeting with his top officials at Amaravati before leaving for Visakhapatnam to personally oversee the rescue operations.
According to various accounts, one of the men died when he jumped into a well while another person fell off the balcony of his house as the gas started leaking from the LG Polymers unit located at RR Venkatapuram near Gopalapatnam and spread across the five sleeepy villaged around 2.30 a.m.
In scenes reminiscent of the Bhopal disaster, the streets and hospitals of Visakhapatnam were filled with people in panic, scared to breathe and unable to fathom the silent tragedy that struck them.
Early morning sights included people lying unconscious on the streets and dead cattle by the roadside. People, with children strung over their shoulders, ran in panic towards hospitals. Ambulances rushed to the area and transported 70 unconscious people to the King George Hospital.
Eyewitnesses said that the incident took place around 2.30 a.m. when people were fast asleep in their homes. All of a sudden people in surrounding areas woke up with a sense of breathlessness, terrible itching, and burning sensation in their eyes. Panic-stricken, they rushed out of their homes, only to collapse. Several cattle and livestock also succumbed to the poisonous gas pervading the air.
The impact of the tragedy was reduced to some extent as the plant operatives immediately alerted the authorities following which the district administration swung into action, an official said. The surrounding areas within a radius of 3 kms have been cleared of people and arrangements made for feeding around 7,500 people who have been asked to vacate their homes.
Officials said that the leak has been sealed and the gas dissipates fast and so the death toll may not increase substantially.
LG Polymers is among India's leading manufacturers of polystyrene and expandable polystyrene. The plant located at Visakhapatnam belongs to the Mumbai-based LG Polymers India, which is part of the South Korean group LG Chemical. Originally set up in 1961, as Hindustan Polymers for manufacturing polystyrene and its co-polymers, the company was merged with McDowell & Co Ltd of UB Group in 1978. It ultimately became part of LG Chemical in 1997.
Later in the day, police registered a case on a complaint by M. V. Subba Rao, Village Revenue Officer of RR Venkatapuram village near the chemical plant.
The FIR was registered against the company management at Gopalapatnam police station under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 278 (Making atmosphere noxious to health, 284 (Negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance), 285 (Negligent conduct with respect to fire or combustible matter), 337 A(Causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) 338 (Causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 304 IIA (culpable homicide not amounting to murder).
The complainant said the gas leakage from the plant at about 3.30 a.m. affected Venkatapuram and other villages and resulted in loss of lives and sought action against the company management for the same.
Meanwhile, LG Polymers in a statement said it has mobilised its technical teams to work with the investigating authorities to arrive at the exact cause of the incident.
"We would like to express our deepest condolences to the deceased and their families. At this moment our top priority is to work closely with the local government and the authorities to ensure medical help is provided to all those who have been affected by this incident. As a responsible global citizen it is our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all local residents and our employees," the company said.
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a high-level meeting to take stock of the steps taken in response to the gas leak.
He discussed at length the measures being taken for the safety of the affected people as well as for securing the site affected by the disaster. The meeting was attended by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister Amit Shah and senior officers.
Both Modi and Shah talked to the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in the morning and assured the state of all aid and assistance from the Centre to tackle the situation.
Later, the Cabinet Secretary held a detailed review meeting along with the Secretaries of the Ministries of Home Affairs, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Chemicalsand Petrochemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Information and Broadcasting; Members of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Director General (DG), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF); Director General of Health Services (DGHS) and Director AIIMS, and other medical experts; to chart out specific steps to support the management of the situation on the ground. Principal Secretary to Prime Minister was also present in the meeting.
It was decided that a team from CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) unit of NDRF from Pune, along with an expert team of National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur would be rushed to Vishakhapatnam immediately to support the State Government in the management of the crisis on the ground, and also to take measures for resolving the short term as also long term medical impact of the leak.
The incident of styrene gas leakage occurred in a chemical plant in the early hours today at 3 am in RR Venkatapuram village, Gopalapatnam Mandal in Visakhpatnam District. It affected the surrounding villages namely Narava, B.C Colony, Bapuji Nagar, Kampalapalem and Krishna Nagar. Styrene gas, which is toxic in nature, may cause irritation to the skin, eyes and causes respiratory problems and other medical conditions, an official press release said in Delhi.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teamwith CBRN personnel at Vishakhapatnam was deployed immediately to support the State Government and local administration. The NDRF team carried out immediate evacuation of communities living in the immediate vicinity of the site, it added.
(With inputs from IANS)