VISAKHAPATNAM: Rescuers evacuate people following a gas leak incident at an LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam yesterday. - AFP

VISAKHAPATNAM: At least six people were killed and 1,000 hospitalized after a pre-dawn gas leak at a chemical plant in eastern India yesterday that left unconscious victims lying in the streets, authorities said. The gas escaped out of tanks at a complex owned by South Korea's LG Chem that had suspended operations because of India's coronavirus lockdown.

Footage on Indian television channels showed people, including women and children, lying motionless in the streets of Visakhapatnam, an industrial port city in Andhra Pradesh state. Local police commissioner RK Meena said six people had been confirmed killed, however the full scale of the disaster was unclear late yesterday morning. At least 1,000 people had been sent to different hospitals, according to B K Naik, district hospitals coordinator, who said many others were feared to be unconscious in their homes.

"There are people who were sleeping," Naik told AFP. "We are working to get people to the hospital. They need oxygenation and fresh air." Pictures taken by AFP at the King George Hospital in the city showed two or three patients on each bed, many of them children, and many unconscious. Some of the patients were lying on the beds in the sparse hospital wearing just shorts and without tops or shoes. Other photos showed vapor still rising from the tanks.

"I pray for everyone's safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter. The plant, operated by LG Polymers, is a subsidiary of LG Chem, is on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. The city and the surrounding area are home to around five million people. LG Chem released a statement in South Korea late yesterday morning indicating gas had stopped leaking from the plant.

"The gas leak situation is now under control and we are exploring all ways to provide speedy treatment for those who suffer from inhaling the leaked gas," the statement said. The plant had been left idle because of the coronavirus lockdown, according to Swaroop Rani, an assistant police commissioner, in Visakhapatnam, "(The gas) was left there because of the lockdown. It led to a chemical reaction and heat was produced inside the tanks, and the gas leaked because of that," Rani told AFP.

She said local villagers raised the alarm about 3:30am, saying there was gas in the air, and police officers who rushed to the scene had to quickly retreat for fear of being poisoned. "One could feel the gas in the air and it was not possible for any of us to stay there for more than a few minutes," she said. LG Chem confirmed the plant was not operating because of the lockdown, but said there were maintenance staff at the facility. "While it's true that the factory wasn't operating as it was under lockdown, there were maintenance workers inside," a company spokesman told AFP in Seoul. "A worker on night shift discovered the leak and reported it."

Rashes, sore eyes
According to the Times of India there were at least eight dead, including an eight-year-old girl, and 5,000 people had fallen sick. Residents were complaining of breathing problems, rashes on their body and sore eyes, it added. The News18 television channel showed people slumped on the pavements with several apparently unconscious. The incident had echoes of one of the worst industrial disasters in history when gas leaked from a pesticide plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal in 1984.

Around 3,500 people, mainly in shanties around the plant operated by Union Carbide, died in the days that followed and thousands more in the following years. People continue to suffer its after-effects to this day. Government statistics say that at least 100,000 people living near to the Union Carbide plant have been victims of chronic illnesses.

Survivors still suffer from ailments such as respiratory and kidney problems, hormonal imbalances, mental illness and several forms of cancer. New generations have been made ill by the polluted groundwater and poisonous breast milk fed to them from birth. - AFP