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Visakhapatnam, May 7, 2020
At least eight people, including an eight-year-old girl, died and more than 240 others were undergoing treatment after gas from a chemicals unit in the city leaked early this morning and spread to nearby villages whose residents were sleeping and, therefore, caught unawares.
According to Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation officials, the tragedy took place when LG Polymers at Venkatapuram, closed due to the lockdown, was being restarted on Thursday morning. The gas stored in tanks began leaking and spread in a radius of 3 km. Officials have zeroed in on two gases, styrene and pentine, as the likely causes for the accident.
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.
Even as authorities have managed to neutralise the gas and contain the impact of the leak, the official death toll in Visakhapatnam went up to 8.
The dead include an 8-year old girl and two senior citizens. Hospital authorities are searching for the parents of a young child who is in the hospital.
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 KG 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.
In Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were keeping abreast of all details. Modi held a meeting with NDMA officials.
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.