Remember Remember the 3rd December: The Aftermath

Lily Frost - Writer

Editor's Note - This the second past in Frost's series on the Bhopal disaster - read the first part here.

This is the second article of a series where I aim to outline the events that took place on and after the 2nd December 1984, which is now referred to as the Bhopal Disaster. This second segment is dedicated to the immediate aftermath of the gas leak.

As soon as the 45 tonnes of gas was released into the air, the highly toxic substance made its way into and around small towns located near the plant. The gas was released during the night, so those who were woken up by symptoms of coughing, severe eye irritation,breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting fled away from the plant. Children inhaled more gas, as they were closer to the ground where there was a higher concentration of the chemical. This is because Methyl Isocyanate (MIC)  is almost twice as dense as air and therefore falls to the ground. The victims at this stage primarily died of choking, circulatory collapse and pulmonary oedema. However, due to the panic, hundreds died in a chaotic stampede.

A survivor, Champa Devi Shukla recounted:

People just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran. Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they just kept falling, and were trampled on by other people. People climbed and scrambled over each other to save their lives – even cows were running and trying to save their lives and crushing people as they ran.

Emergency services soon became completely overwhelmed and unable to answer questions about what was happening and how you could protect yourself. At first, police instructed people in the affected areas to run away from the plant, but that tragically meant that those who did inhaled more of the toxic gas, and succumbed to the effects quicker. The emergency services were not even aware that simply covering your face with a wet cloth could provide some protection from the gas. On that night, and the few days that followed almost 400,000 people left the city in a chaotic, uncontrolled evacuation.

Union Carbide Corporation, who operated the pesticide plant had several measures in place to stop an incident like this. However, due to the sheer volume of gas released, the preventative measures failed. This meant that no automatic alarm went off, the first alarm was raised manually by an employee. Suddenly thousands of people rushed to the hospitals that were filling up by the second.  The hospitals filled to capacity and the whole health system overwhelmed. Due to the lack of preparation for the numbers in hospitals, the lack of information about what the effects of this chemical was and the unprecedented number of patients, hospitals couldn’t control the fatalities. Publically available data about MIC as a chemical and its effects did not reach doctors until several days after the accident. The only medical treatment provided as a result was limited treatment of injuries.

There were two other factors that made managing the effects of MIC difficult. Firstly, the majority of the affected victims were poverty-stricken and malnourished. This meant that many had preexisting symptoms, similar to the symptoms of being exposed to MIC. For hospitals, this meant that hospitals could not pinpoint specific symptoms of MIC exposure.  Secondly, it was never made clear whether any other gases had been released in the leak. Many hospitals detected cyanide poisoning symptoms among victims, though this has never been proven or disproven by Union Carbide Corporation.

The immediate aftermath left thousands dead as a result of MIC exposure. Since the disaster many have speculated about how many have died as a direct result of the gas leak .Union Carbide stated that the official number of deaths was 3,800. Many workers who organised mass graves recount at least 15,000 deaths. However, it is important to note how no-one will ever be able to give a correct number, as deaths in relation to the disaster, for example, those killed in stampedes are not taken into account.

The devastation of this disaster, I believe is in the incomprehensible number of deaths. This had a knock on effect on how deaths were processed in Bhopal. The coroner’s office was unable to provide death certificates to the victim’s relatives. On the 4th of December, there were mass funerals and cremations, many of whom were not officially pronounced dead. However, on this day the disaster was still unravelling. Those who had not died from the disaster had life altering injuries, many left blind or with chronic respiratory issues. In an affidavit, submitted in 2006, the government stated that the Bhopal gas leak caused 558,125 injuries that included approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.

 The aftermath of the disaster shows an insight into the failings that occured, that could have been prevented. Undoubtedly, the lack of information following the gas leak led to hospitals being restricted in their aid. The lack of information to emergency services meant that they could not instruct people on how to prevent further exposure, for example putting a wet cloth over your face or not running. Furthermore, the lack of any kind of warning or alarm as soon as it happened meant that there was no preparation to even attempt a controlled evacuation. We are currently in the 36th year since the Bhopal disaster, and yet the urban disaster is still unfolding for survivors who have the physical and emotional of these failings in the aftermath of the disaster,

In the third article in this series I will delve into the long term effects of the disaster’s including contaminated water, birth defects and lifelong chronic illness. I will also address the debate of who is responsible for this disaster, compensation, as well as accounts from Union Carbide Corporation.

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