8 Killed, Hundreds Taken Ill As Gas Leaks From Vizag Chemical Plant

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Poisonous styrene gas leaked from the plant during the early hours of the morning. (AFP)

Visakhapatnam- At least eight people were killed and hundreds taken ill, many collapsing to the ground as they tried to escape, when gas leaked from a chemical plant here in the early hours of Thursday and quickly spread to villages in a five kilometre radius.

Hours after the styrene gas leak around 2.30 am from the multinational L G Polymers Plant at R R Venkatapuram village near here, scores of people could be seen lying unconscious on sidewalks and near ditches, raising fears of a major industrial disaster.

Among the dead was a child and two people who fell into a borewell while escaping from the vapours from the plant, getting ready to reopen after the lockdown.

As rescue officers and police personnel rushed to take people to hospital and revive them, many people could be seen gasping for breath as they staggered their way to safety, dazed and stunned. Some tried to walk but fell to the ground in a faint.

People in ground zero, R R Venkatapuram village in Gopalapatnam, were evacuated. Cries for help broke the silence of the night and many people fell unconscious during their sleep, a villager said.

Taking stock of the situation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he had spoken to officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

“I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” Modi said in a tweet.

President Ram Nath Kovind and Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu also condoled the loss of lives.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy has ordered a probe into the matter, state Director General of Police D Gautam Sawang said.

The DGP said there was no more leakage of gas and the situation was now “stable and under control”.

At least 246 persons with health complications are undergoing treatment at the King George Hospital, Visakhapatnam, and 20 are on ventilator support, he told reporters.

Over 800 persons were evacuated from R R Venkatapuram and most of them only needed first aid.

“How the gas leaked and why the neutraliser at the plant did not prove effective in containing the leak will all be investigated. Styrene, though, is not a poisonous gas and can be fatal only if inhaled in excess quantity,” Sawang said.

Styrene is a chemical used to make synthetic rubber and resins.

Though the source of the leak was contained in the morning itself, the effects were seen for many hours after.

Daybreak revealed the full magnitude of the tragedy.

Hundreds of villagers, most of them children, suffered from irritation in their eyes, breathlessness, nausea and rashes.

Everyone helped as they could, some offering first aid, others water, dabbing and wiping people’s faces. Those affected were rushed to hospitals in autos and two-wheelers while government workers and others tried to assist in whatever way possible.

In disturbing visuals that flashed across television screens, two children hugged each other as a rescue worker tried to revive a woman, possibly their mother.

Those who could speak narrated what had happened. People could also be seen sitting on the kerb, trying to explain the events of the morning.

State Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said the LG Polymers unit was supposed to reopen post-lockdown on Thursday.

“We are trying to reach out to the top management of the (South Korean) company…our immediate priority is to arrest the leak and ensure proper medicare to the affected people,” he said.

In a series of tweets, Reddy said villages around the plant are being evacuated and a help desk was set up.

Styrene gas affects the central nervous system, throat, skin, eyes and some other parts of the body, said NDRF Director General S N Pradhan.

The gas leak incident took place as the plastic factory that was closed during the lockdown was being prepared for resumption of operations, he said.

Several police personnel, who were part of the rescue operation, also complained of of symptoms like breathlessness, irritation in eyes and fell unconscious.

The 20-odd workers in the plant were well-versed with safety protocol and took appropriate steps and therefore did not suffer, sources said.

The Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation put out an advisory on Twitter, asking people to wear a wet cloth or mask, eat banana and jaggery and drink milk to neutralise the effects of the gas.

The Andhra Pradesh government on Thursday appealed to citizens of Visakhapatnam not to panic and cooperate with authorities working to bring under control the situation.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi expressed shock over the gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam and prayed for the speedy recovery of those hospitalised.

He also urged Congress workers in the area to provide all necessary support to those affected.

My condolences to the families of those who have perished. I pray that those hospitalised make a speedy recovery,” he said on Twitter.

The grim scenes recalled the Bhopal gas leak, the world’s worst industrial disaster in which more than 3,000 people were killed and lakhs affected when methyl isocyanate gas leaked out from a Union Carbide plant on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984. (AP)

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