Alive in the City of Death
An on-the-scene report by a Watchtower minister in Bhopal
BHOPAL—until recently perhaps you had never heard of this city of some 800,000 people in central India. Built on three hills, with two large lakes that almost join in the city’s center, and having delightful parks and tree-lined roads, Bhopal is very beautiful. But then, last December 3, poisonous gas leaked from the city’s Union Carbide chemical plant, causing the worst industrial accident in history. Thus Bhopal became, literally overnight, the city of death.
My wife Mary and I, along with our teenage son Carl, live right alongside the Union Carbide plant. Only a small field, about 150 meters (490 ft) across, separates our home from the factory grounds. So why are we alive and well when thousands of others, most of whom lived farther from the plant, either were killed or suffered horrible injuries?
The Way the Wind Blew
When we retired Sunday evening, December 2, a cool breeze rustled the trees on Bhopal’s three hills, and the light of an almost full moon shimmered on its lakes. During the night, we were awakened by the Union Carbide plant’s sirens. But we paid them no attention and, after a while, were able to get back to sleep. Many times before, we had heard the factory sirens, evidently to call in technicians for some minor emergency or to indicate a safety drill. In fact, coming home on a winter night, we could often smell pesticides.
This night, however, there was no unusual smell, nothing to suggest the nightmare that had started. It was a catastrophe of such dimensions that it would take the lives of more than 2,500 people and affect one fourth of the city’s population. Thousands would be left partially or totally blind, or with injured lungs and brain damage. Some 3,000 cattle and innumerable small animals would be killed. It was a horror that would leave behind fear—fear of remaining pollution and fear of delayed effects of gas poisoning and deadly diseases.
What caused this calamity? According to the managing director of the plant, MIC (methyl isocyanate) gas leaked out when a valve on a storage tank broke under rising pressure. Some scientists believe that phosgene gas, used in gas attacks during World War I, also leaked.
MIC resembles nerve gas in its effects on humans. It can kill instantly and is also lethal when absorbed through the skin. Sometime after midnight, for about 40 minutes, tons of MIC poured into the atmosphere before the leak could be stopped. But the wind carried it away from the houses in our area. If it hadn’t, we probably would have been found dead in bed and would have been buried in a mass grave, with only a photograph for later identification.
A Night of Terror
As the gas emerged, a huge white cloud formed in the clear night sky. The chill of winter brought it down to earth, and it crept into the homes, into the cattle pens, through the main city bus station and down into the railway station. Spreading out, it began to turn toward the main vegetable market and up to the city hospital.
Another arm of the gas monster headed toward the lower lake and on into the newer part of the city. And as it went it killed. Awakened from sleep with the gas burning their eyes and closing their throats, thousands ran into the streets. Of those who inhaled the gas close to the plant, almost all died very quickly. Others stumbled on, blinded and vomiting, only to fall dead in the road.
Suddenly the entire city was on the move and shouts of “bhago, bhago” (meaning, “run, run”) filled the air. Families were separated as crowds carried them along. In time police vans with loudspeakers began rousing people and evacuating the affected areas as quickly as possible. All night some petrol pumps provided free fuel for vehicles trying to get out of the city. On foot, by scooter, moped, auto-ricksha, car, bus, and truck thousands poured out of the city. Children were trampled to death by the fleeing crowds. Some were crushed under vehicles as they staggered on half blinded. Others ran aimlessly, unintentionally following the path of the gas, and they died or were severely injured.
Among those who gave more thought to their flight was a fellow Christian, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Brother Paulose awoke about 2:30 a.m. to the sound of the sirens and to an acrid smell rather like ammonia. Knowing that the gas could come only from the Union Carbide plant, he first tested the direction of the wind and then, without even stopping to collect warm clothes, hurried his family away from the path of the gas. They battled their way through a huge, flowing mass of people and fled to the top of a hill outside the city where the fresh, clean air from the lake soothed them. Except for slight eye irritation and chest pain, they suffered no ill effects.
As the night wore on, government machinery went into action. Wearing gas masks, officials entered the hardest hit area on the other side of the plant from where we live. Among the first into this area were the mayor of Bhopal, Dr. Bisarya, and his son Robin. Describing the scene, only about 200 meters (650 ft) from our home, Robin said, “All you could see were bodies, bodies of people and animals.”
Doctors from all over the city were called, and they rushed to help. The vast Hamidia Hospital was soon packed with frantic people seeking relief. In a short time the wards were overflowing and tents were set up on the hospital grounds. First-aid posts sprang up all over the city.
Hundreds fled to nearby towns only to die en route or on arrival. After receiving medical treatment, one man felt better. On reaching home, he lit a cigarette, inhaled, and died on the spot. A young man took the bodies of his father and mother to be disposed of by burning, returned home, and fell down dead. One young girl we met had lost nine members of her family.
Our Monday of Horror
Yet for us the horror of it all didn’t occur until after we awoke at our regular time, 4:50 a.m., and began to prepare for the day’s activities. Surrounded by death and suffering, we had slept peacefully through it all!
After getting our son Carl off to his part-time secular work at the local newspaper office, my wife and I planned to share in our regular preaching activity. Both of us, as well as our son, are full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But wherever we went this Monday morning, there were dead bodies of people and animals. A person would be walking on the road just ahead of us and suddenly collapse, dead.
As we now toured the city, there were hardly any vehicles on the road. All shops were closed. The market was closed. On entering the bus station, we found the floor covered with vomit and excreta. At the railway station, many of the staff on duty had died on the spot.
Station superintendent, Harish Dhurve, who had inhaled the gas, saw his staff collapsing. He succeeded in contacting the next station and warned them to stop all trains from entering Bhopal. He was found dead at his desk. Some passengers who had come for a train due to leave at 1:30 a.m. never left Bhopal alive. An engineer who brought a train into the city before the warning was given died on arrival.
Returning home Monday noon, we ran into crowds of people blocking our way and calling out that more gas had leaked and for all to run the other way. This caused panic and proved to be a false rumour. We saw municipal trucks with bodies piled one on top of the other. With each passing hour the death toll mounted—269, 566, 1,217, and eventually more than 2,500. A newspaper headline on December 5 claimed, “One death every minute.”
Day and night, columns of smoke rose into the sky from the burning of the bodies. Open spaces were hastily converted to serve for the burning of these bodies, even a hundred at a time. Animals were carted outside the city and thrown into deep fissures and covered over. A few looted deserted homes, but most did all they could to help the suffering. We gladly joined with our neighbours in providing money and preparing food for the sick.
From all over the country, doctors and scientists poured into the city to help. And medical experts with experience in treating eye and chest problems came from other countries. Sadly, women who were apparently not too badly affected themselves delivered stillborn babies. Others arrived at the hospital in extreme pain and aborted dead fetuses.
Interestingly, on Saturday, just two days before, my wife had taken the latest copy of Awake! to Dr. A. M. Shali, a regular reader. “Very busy?” my wife asked the doctor. “This is our quiet time,” was her reply. “With the heat and the rain over, and the good winter weather, this is the healthy season,” she added. “So there is less work for doctors.”
But as we passed Dr. Shali’s dispensary Monday morning the queue of people pushing one another to get treatment stretched way down the road and was four and five deep. Heads were bowed to protect burning eyes from the sun. Dr. Shali later told us that she had been called out early in the morning and that she and her husband along with some helpers had worked nonstop all day Monday and through the night treating the victims free of charge. She stated that when proper treatment was promptly given, eyesight could be saved. If neglected, however, the eyes would develop ulcerated corneas, and eyesight could be lost. “When you see this suffering,” she said, “how can men think of starting a nuclear war?”
Checking on Fellow Witnesses
Of great concern to us were our Christian brothers and sisters in Bhopal, all of whom live in the old part of the city well within the danger zone. What a relief to find on visiting them that all 12 were alive and uninjured!
We really appreciated our Christian brotherhood when Witnesses from other places began to visit to see how we were faring. The first to arrive was Brother Barrett, himself a heart patient. He had come 337 kilometers (209 mi) overnight by train. We were so glad to see him that tears filled our eyes. Telegrams and letters also began to come in, and this, too, encouraged us greatly.
Hope in the Face of Sorrow
Daily, thousands of people poured into the city to search for loved ones. Government agencies worked night and day to dispose of bodies to prevent the outbreak of disease. The chief minister of the state, Arjun Singh, declared that Union Carbide would never reopen in the city. But it will be long before Bhopal forgets its night of death.
No compensation to survivors will bring the dead back to life or give sight back to the blind. Yet there is One who can do all those things, Jehovah God. His Witnesses in Bhopal, grateful to be alive, are glad to visit their neighbours with the comforting good news that soon such man-made tragedies will never again occur.
[Picture on page 20]
Carrying a loved one off for cremation
[Picture on page 22]
Leading away two whose eyes were damaged