Gas leaked from a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam in the early hours of Thursday and quickly spread to villages in a five-kilometre radius, killing at least 11 people and impacting about 1,000, many of whom collapsed to the ground as they tried to escape the toxic vapours.
Hours after the styrene gas leak around 2.30 am from the multinational LG Polymers Plant at RR Venkatapuram village near Visakhapatnam, scores of people could be seen lying unconscious on pavements, near ditches and on the road, raising fears of a major industrial disaster.
Among the dead was a child and two people who fell into a borewell while fleeing the vapours from the plant that was getting ready to reopen after the lockdown.
Late on Thursday night, gas fumes started emanating again from the tanker where styrene leakage was reported. "Around 50 fire staffers, with support of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), are carrying out operations. We have ordered the evacuation of villages within a 2-3 km radius for precautions," news agency ANI quoted Visakhapatnam District Fire Officer Sandeep Anand as saying.
Anand said 10 more fire tenders, including two foam tenders, are present at the spot and ambulances are ready for any emergency.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy announced ex-gratia of Rs 1 crore each to the families of the deceased and set up a high-level committee to look into the incident. Reddy later visited Visakhapatnam's King George Hospital where several people are undergoing treatment.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, while expressing his condolences, said the leak needs to be fully investigated by local authorities.
A bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) hear on Friday the matter related to the leak after a plea sought constitution of a high-level committee to investigate the incident.
In the aftermath of the tragic incident, Union Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister DV Sadananda Gowda urged all public and private chemical makers to exercise caution and care while reopening their plants.
Meanwhile, an official from the Ministry of Environment said the plant's licence may get revoked if it is found flouting environmental norms.
Gasping for breath
As rescue officers and police personnel rushed to take people to hospital and revive them, many could be seen gasping for breath as they staggered their way to safety, dazed and disoriented. Some tried to walk but fell to the ground in a faint.
The death toll from the accident could increase, with at least 20 people on ventilator support. At least 246 people with health complications are undergoing treatment at King George Hospital, police said.
About 800 people at ground zero -- RR Venkatapuram village in Gopalapatnam -- were evacuated and most needed only first aid.
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," he said in a tweet. President Ram Nath Kovind and Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu also expressed their distress and condoled the loss of lives.
NDRF and NDMA officials in Delhi said 11 people died and 1,000 were exposed to the gas.
NDRF Director General SN Pradhan said leakage from the factory had been reduced to minimal but NDRF personnel will remain at the spot till it is totally plugged. The gas leak took place as the plastic factory that was closed during the lockdown was being prepared for resumption of operations, he said.
About 500 people from 200-250 families in a three-kilometre radius were evacuated to safer places.
Andhra Director General of Police D Gautam Sawang said the chief minister has ordered a probe into the matter. “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, a chemical used to make synthetic rubber and resins, affects the central nervous system, throat, skin, eyes and some other parts of the body.
Quoting a preliminary report, a senior district official on Thursday evening said the leak was caused by a technical glitch in the refrigeration unit attached to the two styrene tanks.
"Styrene monomer is normally in a liquid state and is safe below a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius. But, because of the malfunctioning of the refrigeration unit, the chemical started gassifying," said District Collector V Vinay Chand quoting the preliminary report submitted by the Factories Department.
The glitch caused the temperature in the chemical storage tank to rise above the safety level of 20 degrees, leading to gassification and consequent evaporation of styrene, he said.
Eerie memories of 1984 gas leak
Although the source of the leak was contained in the morning itself, the effects were seen for many hours after. Hundreds of villagers, most of them children, suffered from irritation in their eyes, breathlessness, nausea and rashes.
Cattle and birds were also knocked unconscious by the gas leak.
The grim scenes recalled the Bhopal gas tragedy, 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 in 1984.
State Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said the LG Polymers unit was supposed to reopen 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 were being evacuated and a help desk has been set up.
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 state government appealed to citizens of Visakhapatnam not to panic and cooperate with authorities working to bring under control the situation.
LG Chem, which operates the plant, said it is cooperating with Indian authorities to help residents and employees.
"The gas leakage is now under control, but the leaked gas can cause nausea and dizziness, so we are investing every effort to ensure proper treatment is provided swiftly," LG Chem said in a statement. "We are investigating the extent of damage and the exact cause of the leak and deaths."
Stating that the plant operations were suspended because of coronavirus lockdown, the firm said none of its employees have died in the accident.
The leak was noticed by company staff who were reportedly inspecting machines to restart the factory and raised an alarm.
(With inputs from agencies)