Visakhapatnam: Tragedy struck the port city of Visakhapatnam early on Thursday as the gas leak from a chemical plant, which had re-opened only a day ago after lockdown, claimed 11 lives and landed over 300 in hospitals.
In shocking scenes reminiscent of Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, dozens of people were seen collapsing on ground as styrene gas, leaking from LG Polymers plant, affected RR Venkatapuram and four villages on the city outskirts.
Officials said the incident occurred around 3.45 a.m., shattering the sleep and the peace of hundreds of people, who started having breathing problems, irritation in eyes and vomiting sensation.
Eye witnesses said amid utter confusion and chaos, people ran helter-skelter to save their lives and in the process two people lost their lives by falling in a well and a drain.
Acting swiftly, police and other personnel rushed the affected to hospitals and the situation was brought under control with the evacuation of people from the villages.
As the emissions continued from the plant through the day, officials were busy trying to contain it till late evening.
Industry Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said they arranged for airlifting of PTBC inhibitor, an antidote for styrene, from Gujarat to cap the emissions. Water was also being sprinkled on the leaking tank to bring down its temperature.
Confusion prevailed over the death toll. Though the death toll was put at 11, a senior official at King George Hospital (KGH) said late in the evening that 10 bodies were preserved in the morgue and an autopsy will be done on Friday.
Earlier in the day, Chief Minister Y. S. Jagan Mohan Reddy rushed to Visakhapatnam and after calling on the affected at KGH, announced an exgratia of Rs 1 crore each to each of the nine families of the deceased besides a compensation package to the affected people.
He constituted a high-level committee to probe the incident.
He told reporters that those on ventilators will be paid Rs 10 lakh each while others undergoing treatment in hospitals for two-three days will be given Rs 1 lakh. People who were mildly affected will get Rs 25,000 each while the other residents in the most affected villages will be paid Rs 10,000 each.
Terming it unfortunate that this disaster happened at the plant of a reputed company like LG, he also said that if necessary, the plant will be shifted to some other location.
A five-member team of experts in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) disaster was flying from Pune to Visakhapatnam to assess the situation.
S.N. Pradhan, Director General of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), said the initial movement was made by the local administration, the police and the fire services.
“At around 5.30 a.m., the NDRF unit stationed in Vishakhapatnam was informed and our personnel immediately rushed to the spot. They helped in two ways – by neutralising the situation inside the LG Polymers factory and by evacuating the villagers living near the factory,” Pradhan said.
“NDRF will stay back in the area till we are absolutely sure that the situation is under control. It will assist the local administration till it is required,” said Pradhan, stressing that the “situation is now under control”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a meeting with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) officials in the wake of the gas leak incident.
The Chief Minister also received a phone call from the Prime Minister who enquired about the incident and the steps being taken to tide over the crisis.
Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, P.K. Mishra held a meeting with Cabinet Secretary, Home Secretary, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), Director All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), and medical experts on Vishakhapatnam gas leak situation.
In Amaravati, the Industry Minister said the negligence by LG Polymers led to gas leak from its plant. He said the company management would have to own the responsibility for the tragedy.
Visakhapatnam police registered a First Information Report (FIR) against LG Polymers. The company management was booked for negligence and culpable homicide not amounting to murder, among other sections.
Meanwhile, the company in a statement said it has mobilize its technical teams to work with the investigating authorities to arrive at the exact cause of the incident.
Officials indicated that the gas leakage may have been caused by initiation of polymerisation of styrene in liquid form due to prolonged storage during the lockdown period.
The disaster happened as the plant was re-starting its operations after more than 40 days due to the lockdown.
Officials also believe that the safety system failed to prevent gasification of styrene, resulting in its leakage and spread of the gas to the surrounding villages.
“Styrene in liquid form is safe when stored at below 20 degrees but due some technical problem, the refrigeration was not effective leading to rise of temperature and Styrene started gasifying and the leakage happened,” Visakhapatnam District Collector V. Vinay Chand said
Director General of Police Gautam Sawang said the police received the information about the gas leak through dial 100 in the early hours of Thursday. “Quick response teams were deployed soon after the outbreak and people were evacuated to safe places.”
National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), Andhra Pradesh Special Police (APSP) and nearby police were deployed to rescue and shift people to safe places.