'There were no alerts and no cautions': Victim of the Vizag gas tragedy

ST Correspondent
Saturday, 9 May 2020

Villagers from the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam experienced pandemonium during the early hours of the gas leak

When the gas started leaking from a nearby chemical factory and began floating towards his home in southern India, Elamanchili Venkatesh, a welder, said that there were no alerts and no cautions.

He realised something was wrong when he woke up in the pre-dawn darkness on Thursday in the village of RR Venkatapuram, just 250 meters (275 yards) from the South Korean LG Chem Ltd factory. 

"My eyes were burning and the room was filled with a strong smell," the 22-year-old was quoted saying to Reuters. Somehow, he was able to dial a friend and urge him to come over immediately. He also struggled to wake his family of six, but failed.

Venkatesh, who stumbled outside desperately, said he coughed up blood before he lost consciousness. When he woke up in a hospital hours later, his mother was struggling for her life, and his one-year-old niece was in intensive care.

Shortly afterwards his mother died. She was one of 11 people killed when styrene gas, a raw material used at the plant, leaked into the air around 2:30 a.m. and enveloped the houses on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, officials said.

Hundreds more became sick and were hospitalised. "Why couldn't they have raised an alarm? Don't they have a siren in the company to alert citizens when something like this happens?" he said. "I didn't hear anything."

A dozen other Reuters interviewees identified scenes of chaos following the leak. It said that when the mishap happened, it was reviving the unit after following the nationwide lockdown that was enforced to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The leak was found by a night shift maintenance worker, the company said. "Currently, we are focusing on all necessary measures together with relevant authorities to protect residents and employees and surveying the extent of the casualties and damage," LG Chem said in a statement on Friday.

The leak followed a chemical reaction in an industrial material that had been stored for weeks, it said. "The exact cause of the incident is currently being investigated and will be notified as the findings and information becomes more concrete," it said.

A senior official from Andhra Pradesh's government briefed on the matter said the stored raw material temperature was higher than it should have been, adding that authorities were investigating to know whether the cooling system had malfunctioned.

The first person to call the emergency services was a local and not a staff of the company. Police, firemen, and ambulance crews rescued about 4,500 families living in the villages that surrounded the factory over the next few hours.

Venkatesh's friend Naresh Patrudu reached the area before 4:00 a.m to rescue his friend. While on his way, Patudu said he saw many people lying in the ditches. Many were semi-conscious, rolling around on the ground. "It was very, very horrible," Avinash Kumar Gusida said, who also came to rescue a stranded friend and saw several children, adults as well as animals lying unconscious.

Pasala Kanakaraju, 56, who was fleeing his house on his motorcycle, discovered people lying unconscious in the streets, some were frothing from the mouth as well. He too lost his balance on the bike and fell.

LG Chem said inhaling the gas induces nausea and dizziness, but several witnesses told Reuters about other severe symptoms that the victims exhibited. Patrudu said Venkatesh's mother was lying unconscious about 400 metres from the house.

Venkatesh himself was found throwing up outside of a nearby cement factory. The last one he found was his sister-in-law who was lying unconscious in the house. "We still didn't know what was happening," Patrudu said. It was by then that the ambulances started arriving. "Those were the first noises we heard," he said.

Other rescuers rescued Ventakesh's brother and younger sister, and the family was briefly reunited at a nearby hospital before his mother's death.

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