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 collapsing to the ground as they tried to escape the toxic vapours.
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, 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, 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 disoriented. Some tried to walk but fell to the ground in a faint.
The death toll from the accident could go up with at least 20 people on ventilator support. Besides, 246 people with health complications are undergoing treatment at Visakhapatnam’s King George Hospital, police said.
About 800 people in ground zero, R R Venkatapuram village in Gopalapatnam, were evacuated and most needed only first aid.
Cries for help broke the silence of the night and many people fell unconscious in 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.
Addressing a joint press conference in Delhi in the afternoon National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and NDMA officials said 11 people died and 1,000 were exposed, to the gas.
NDRF Director General S N Pradhan said leakage from the factory had been reduced to minimal but NDRF personnel would be 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 Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy has ordered a probe into the matter, state Director General of Police D Gautam Sawang said.
“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.
The chief minister also announced Rs 1 crore each as relief to kin of people killed. 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.