I went to bed at 5 am, which meant, waking up was not going to happen any time soon. At around 10 am, husband tried to wake me up, said something about a ‘gas leak in Vizag, almost like what happened in Bhopal’. That’s all I figured while still half-asleep. He said he spoke to my parents and they were fine.

Some context – Vizag is a beach city in south-India and Bhopal Gas Tragedy was a gas leak incident in 1984, which caused an immediate death toll of over 2000 people.

I have spent a significant amount of my life in Vizag, a little over ten years, up until college, which was 2011. Since my parents still live there, visits to the city are made pretty often.

When I finally woke up, there were several unread messages on my phone, from concerned friends and family, asking me if my parents are fine.

‘Read about Vizag Gas Leak, hope your parents and relatives are fine,’ was the basic gist of most messages. So I read 2-3 online news reports to understand what the heck was going on, before calling my parents with second-hand information.

This is what happened – there was a gas leak in a chemical plant owned by LG Polymers in an area called Gopalapatnam, which was on the outskirts of Vizag. The immediate death toll was 8 and over 1000 people were affected.

“Phew, that’s nowhere close to where my parents stay. Nothing to worry about.” I tell myself. In fact nobody I knew stayed any where close to the area. But suddenly I remembered that maybe a close friend of mom’s lived in the area.

One of the messages from my mother-in-law said “spoke to your mom, she is quite upset, which is understandable”.

A video call to my mother confirmed my guess, a close friend of hers did stay in the same area and had to evacuate her flat with family because they were within 1km radius of gas leak site.

“Her son said that they can move to a friend’s place. I told her that she could come and stay with us too. It’s such a terrible time. Because of this lockdown, most hotels and lodges are also closed…” Mom went on.

However, the timing was not co-incidental. Sample this from an Indian Express report

An official of LG Polymers issued a statement that there was 1800 tonnes of styrene in the storage tank. He said that due to stagnation and changes in temperature it could have resulted in auto polymerization which could have caused vapourisation.

Almost all initial reports suggest that one of the reasons why this tragedy happened was because the plant was left unattended, owing to the COVID19 lockdown. A thorough investigation will help us better understand what really went wrong.

Mom seemed a little shaken from the incident and complained that the air around our house felt a little different. She seemed to be suffering from a negative placebo effect, because our house in Vizag is at least 12 kilometres away from Gopalapatnam. Later in the day, dad backed her up and claimed they indeed could smell the gas for a few minutes in the morning and that our house-help got a headache from it.

I decided to check on a few other people I knew in Vizag, even though I was sure that they stayed at a safe distance too.

Turned out that a college classmate of mine who teaches, two of her students had gone to visit their grandmother in the same area and had to be rushed to the hospital. They were taken to the intensive care unit but were later declared out of danger.

Screenshot of an excerpt of the chat with my friend

I looked up some helpline numbers issued by the state government and shared it online, just in case it could turn out to be useful to someone.

Someone else mentioned a friend who lived in the area and saw people writhing helplessly on the roads. To him, death seemed all too real. For us, far away, miles away, death was just a third hand experience on our televisions. Not even second hand.