Visakhapatnam/New Delhi: 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.
President Ram Nath Kovind and Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu also expressed their distress and condoled the loss of lives.
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.
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 from the spot that flashed across news and social media, a man, his eyes rolling back, was being put into an ambulance. Another just slumped to the ground near a scooter, stunned and looking blank. 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.
Cattle and birds were also knocked unconscious by the gas leak.
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.
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 were being evacuated and a help desk set up.
Several police personnel, who were part of the rescue operation, also complained 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.
TheAndhra Pradesh government on Thursday 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," it added.
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.
Experts also worked to control and neutralise the styrene vapours with chemicals.
"Officials are using inhibitors to neutralise the vapours. Slowly the vapours are reducing. It was not arrested fully. They are using neutralisers such as TBC (4-tert-Butylcatechol (TBC)," Joint Chief Inspector of Factories, Visakhapatnam, J Siva Sankar Reddy told PTI.
Several political leaders, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP president J P Nadda, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar expressed their shock at the incident.
"The incident in Vizag is disturbing. Have spoken to the NDMA officials and concerned authorities. We are continuously and closely monitoring the situation," Shah tweeted.
The accident impacted the movement of trains from Visakhapatnam, including at least nine Shramik Special Trains taking migrants to various places .
Staff at the SCMN station also experienced burning in the eyes and suffocation. Train movement had stopped across SCMN from 8.35 am to 12 noon.