Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Recalling Sequence of Events That Led to World's Worst Industrial Disaster in 1984
File image of protest seeking compensation for victims of Bhopal gas tragedy (Photo Credits: IANS)

On December 2, it will be 35 years since the infamous 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. Considered to be the world's worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas tragedy was a consequence of a gas leak incident on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant. Over 15,000 died and many thousands suffered severely and permanently disabling injuries after highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas made its way into and around the small towns located near the plant. Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Four Organisations Campaigning for Justice Charge Centre, State of Continued Collusion with Union Carbide.

During the late evening hours of December 2, water was believed to have entered a side pipe and into Tank E610 whilst trying to unclog it. The tank contained 42 tons of poisonous MIC gas. By 11:00 pm, the pressure in the tank had increased by a factor of five to 10 psi. However, this was ignored by two senior officials who assumed that the reading was a result of some kind of instrumentation malfunction. Had they taken the matter seriously, the tragedy could have been averted. By 11:30 pm, the gas started leaking.

By 11:45 pm, the leak was reported to the MIC supervisor on duty at the time. It was decided that matter would be discussed during a tea break at 12:15 am. In the meantime, workers were instructed to continue looking for leaks. The tea break ended at 12:40 am. By that time, the reaction in tank E610 reached a critical state at an alarming speed. Cracks appeared in the slab below the tank, the emergency relief valve burst open and the leak of toxic MIC gas began. The safety devices meant to contain the release either malfunctioned or were in poor condition.

A UCIL employee triggered the plant's alarm system at 12:50 am. Activation of the system triggered two siren alarms: one that sounded inside the UCIL plant, and a second directed outward to the public and the city of Bhopal. The plant was evacuated. There was a lot of miscommunication between the plant authorities and the police department who were not necessary information about what had happened. Within an hour, nearly 30 tonnes of MIC escaped from the tank into the atmosphere.

Moreover, doctors treating locals who were exposed to MIC gas were first told that the gas leak was suspected to be ammonia, then phosgene. When they were finally informed about MIC, they had no antidote. The MIC gas leak emanating from tank E610 was contained at approximately 2:00 am. Even though many fled upwind, thousands died by the following morning. The initial effects of exposure were coughing, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation, burning in the respiratory tract, blepharospasm, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting.

The catastrophic effects were not confined to humans. Within a few days, trees in the vicinity became barren and bloated animal carcasses had to be disposed of. Nearly 2,000 buffalo, goats, and other animals were collected and buried. After several legal activities involving governments of India and the US, an out-of-court settlement reached in February 1989 and Union Carbide agreed to pay US$470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster. In 1991, the local Bhopal authorities charged UCC chairman and CEO Warren Anderson, who had retired in 1986, with manslaughter.

He was declared fugitive and the Indian government was directed to press for an extradition from the United States. However, the US Supreme Court did not allow his extradition. In 2010, seven former employees of UCIL, all Indian nationals and many in their 70s, were convicted of causing death by negligence.

According to a UN report, the Bhopal gas tragedy is among the world’s "major industrial accidents" of the 20th century. At least 30 tons of methyl isocyanate gas was released from the Union Carbide pesticide plant. "The Government figures estimate that there have been 15,000 deaths as a result of the disaster over the years. Toxic material remains and thousands of survivors and their descendants have suffered from respiratory diseases and from damage to internal organs and immune systems," the report said.