NEW DELHI — At least seven people died and hundreds were rushed to hospitals early Thursday after a cloud of toxic gas escaped from an Indian chemical factory owned by the South Korean company LG Corp., Indian officials said.
Dozens of men and women were left lying unconscious in the street. Mothers ran to hospitals with limp children in their arms. Police officers moved house to house to evacuate people from the area around the plant, located near the coastal city of Visakhapatnam.
“We could feel the strong stench of the gas. Our eyes started watering and we could smell the gas in our mouths,” said one man, DVSS Ramana, who lives near the plant and spoke by telephone as he was fleeing.
India has been under a strict coronavirus lockdown for the past six weeks, and Indian officials were examining whether the leak was caused by a rush to reopen the chemical plant.
“It seems unskilled labor mishandled the maintenance work and because of that, the gas leaked,” said Srijana Gummalla, Commissioner of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation.
Doctors at the King George Hospital in Visakhapatnam, said patients had been exposed to styrene gas, which is used to make plastics and rubber.
Styrene gas is considered a neurotoxin that can immobilize a person within minutes of inhalation and be deadly at high concentrations, Indian officials said. Doctors at hospitals in Visakhapatnam said that many patients were vomiting and experiencing “neurological deficiencies.”
The accident happened around 2:30 a.m. Videos broadcast on Indian media showed villagers curled up motionless on the ground. Another showed a stray dog struggling to use its legs to stand before collapsing on the floor. Other photos showed panicked people cramming the ill and unconscious into motorized rickshaws and on the backs of mo-peds as they raced to the hospital.
According to initial reports, the cloud of toxic gas spread over a radius of about three kilometers, sickening people in at least five villages. Officials said that the leak had stopped by midmorning, perhaps earlier.
Some of the images immediately drew comparison to the 1984 gas leak in India’s Bhopal State, considered the world’s worst industrial accident. That leak, at a Union Carbide pesticide plant, left nearly 4,000 dead and another 500,000 injured.
While the Bhopal disaster brought to the fore India’s dangerous industrial practices, forcing the government to improve safety standards, many industrial accidents still persist across the country.
South Korea’s LG Chemical took over the plant from a local Indian company in the late 1990s.
“We are working together with the local authorities to assess the damage caused to the local people and to take whatever it takes to protect them and our workers,” LG Chemical said in a statement. “The gas leak from the factory is now under control. But the gas can cause vomiting and dizziness when inhaled. We are doing all we can to ensure medical treatment as quickly as possible.”
The company said it was still investigating how the leak happened. But it acknowledged that there were some people killed in the villages around the factory, saying that it was investigating “the cause of deaths” and other damage.
Jeffrey Gettleman reported from New Delhi, Suhasini Raj from Lucknow, India, and Maria Abi-Habib from Los Angeles. Reporting was contributed by Hari Kumar, Sameer Yasir and Kai Schultz from New Delhi, and Choe Sang-hun from Seoul.