The 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal

Death came out of a clear sky. Midnight, a cold wind blowing, the stars brilliant as they are in central India, even through the thin pall of cooking-fire smoke that hung above the city. Here and there, braziers were burning to warm those who were obliged to be out late. From the factory which so many had learned to fear, a thin plume of white vapor began streaming from a high structure. Caught by the wind, it became a haze and blew downward to mix with smokes coming from somewhere nearer to the ground. A dense fog formed. Nudged by the wind, it rolled across the road and into the alleys on the other side. Here the houses were packed close, ill-built, with badly-fitting doors and windows. Those within were roused in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases already in their eyes, noses and throats. It burned terribly, it felt like fire.

Aziza Sultan, a survivor, remembers: “At about 12.30 am I woke to the sound of my baby coughing badly. In the half light I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a lot of people shouting. They were shouting ‘run, run’. Then I started coughing with each breath seeming as if I was breathing in fire. My eyes were burning.”

Another survivor, Champa Devi Shukla, remembers that “It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some 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.”

In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Many were crushed in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas.

“The force of the human torrent wrenched children’s hands from their parents’ grasp. Families were whirled apart,” reported the Bhopal Medical Appeal in 1994. “The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people were reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion.”

More than half a million people were exposed to Carbide’s poison gases. (1)
When dawn broke over the city, thousands of bodies lay in heaps in the streets. Even far from the factory, near the lake, at Rani Hira Pati ka Mahal the ground was so thick with dead that you could not avoid treading on them. The army dumped hundreds of bodies in the surrounding forests and the Betwa river was so choked with corpses that they formed log-jams against the arches of bridges. Families and entire communities were wiped out, leaving no one to identify them. According to Rashida Bi, who survived the gas but lost five family members to cancers, those who escaped with their lives “are the unlucky ones; the lucky ones are those who died on THAT NIGHT.”

How many thousands died, no one knows. Carbide says 3,800. Municipal workers who picked up bodies with their own hands, loading them onto trucks for burial in mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Survivors, basing their estimates on the number of shrouds sold in the city, conservatively claim about 8,000 died in the first week. (2)

The official death toll to date (local government figures) stands at more than 20,000 and even now, twenty years later, at least one person per day dies in Bhopal from the injuries they sustained on THAT NIGHT. (3)


NOTES

1. Exactly 521,262 according to the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR). See Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, Javier Moro & Dominique Lapierre, 2001, p 366. Figure of 500,000 cited in The New York Times. “Bhopal Seethes, Pained and Poor 18 Years Later.” Amy Waldman, September 21, 2002.

2. Figure of 8,000 cited in New Scientist Magazine. “Fresh evidence on Bhopal disaster.” December 2, 2002. Available at: http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993140. Estimates come from independent relief organizations working in Bhopal immediately after the gas leak, and were based on evidence such as the number of funeral shrouds (kafans) sold by the local Cloth Merchant Association. See Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, Javier Moro & Dominique Lapierre, 2001, pgs. 365-366.

3. According to The Centre for Rehabilitation Studies’ (an office of the Madhya Pradesh government’s Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Dept.) 1998 Annual Report, the mortality rate among the exposed community in 1997 was 6.70/1000, whereas in the unexposed community it was 5.37/1000, producing a figure of 665 deaths above the mortality rate in the exposed community – or approximately 50 gas related deaths per month. No official figures exist for subsequent years. Further, according to a 1987 ICMR report, the mortality rate in the exposed community was 9.98/1000 and in the unexposed community was 6.03/1000, meaning approximately 150 gas related deaths per month in 1986. Assuming a steady ratio of depreciation in mortality of 6% per year, in 2003 there were therefore over 30 deaths per month due to gas exposure. However, it is worth noting that six monthly morbidity studies conducted by the ICMR between 1987-1991 show that the number of people with gas related symptoms actually increased in that period.