Stories of Survival: Deadly Gas: The 1984 Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal, India
Photo by Simone Lippi

Stories of Survival: Deadly Gas: The 1984 Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal, India

Late in the evening and early morning of December 2 and 3, 1984, a silent killer slipped into the homes of thousands of sleeping residents in the slums of Bhopal, India. Shrouded in the night and tempered by the chaos of panic, they were blindly running for their lives—while each breath they gasped brought them closer to death.

As clouds of gas filtered in through the cracks of their shanties, hundreds began to die in the worst industrial disaster in human history. The population of Bhopal is still reeling from the accident 31 years later.

Jobs for All

Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) opened the Bhopal plant in 1969, and hundreds, then thousands, of hopeful job seekers and their families flooded the area, setting up a number of bustees—the Indian word for slums. One of the largest of these was called Jaiprakash Nagar, or J.P. Nagar, and it was also the closest to the factory grounds.

The factory was doomed from the start. Union Carbide, the American parent company (now owned by Dow Chemicals) opened the plant in hopes of tapping into India’s vast peasant farming community with the promise of a vast array of pest-control products.

Unfortunately, India’s farmers had been dealing with seasons of droughts and floods and never had the means to purchase Union Carbide’s chemicals. The chemical plant was a money-losing proposition by the late 1970s; by the early 1980s, it had almost completely stopped producing chemicals.

However, that did not mean that Union Carbide had removed the toxic chemicals used in the production of its pesticides. Inside the factory, men such as Nadir Khan worked with dozens of chemicals (he never knew the names of many of these) that would be mixed to help create the pesticides Sevin and Temik.

Tanks of Chemicals

One such chemical, stored in three 57,000-liter stainless steel tanks half buried on the property, was MIC, or methyl isocyanate—a highly volatile chemical that reacts with water and is incredibly toxic. It is a colorless, lachrymatory (tearing), flammable liquid. At 5 ppm or less, it is odorless to most people, but at higher amounts, it has a sharp smell.

Nadir Khan left the factory after his shift and strolled along the dirt streets of J.P. Nagar in the near-total blackness of the night. He passed bustees made of wooden slats so poorly cobbled together that the dry winter winds and dust would spin through unimpeded. He could never have guessed that behind him a technician was struggling to maintain a growing crisis with one of the plant’s MIC tanks.

As the plant’s production dwindled, so had the elaborate safety systems that had been established to keep the toxic chemicals in check. Records seem to reflect that plant management assumed that because nothing was being produced, regular maintenance and safety systems could be disregarded. In all, six separate safety measures to protect Bhopal from MIC were left to rot.

“Although the factory attracted thousands of workers and employed nearly as many at its highest production levels, it was doomed from the start.”

Looming Disaster

Assistant stationmaster Madan Gopal Parashar sat in his cabin a few blocks to the south at the Bhopal train station. He was awaiting the Kushinagar Express that was due to arrive soon. It would be packed with passengers, as usual, on the 33-hour ride between Mumbai and Gorakhpur.

At the Union Carbide plant, a control room operator began to notice that the pressure in tank #610 was rising steadily from a normal 2 psi to 10 psi within an hour. A psi reading of 10 was not, itself, cause for alarm; but it had tripled so quickly. Finally, the psi topped at a reading of 55, which caused the technicians to run for the tanks to ameliorate the situation manually. But it was too late. The tank gave way, releasing nearly 40 tons of MIC into the dark, cold air.

Nadir Khan and his neighbors had just settled into a cold sleep in J.P. Nagar. A strong southern wind blew through the bustee, easily penetrating the shanties and hovels of the thousands of people who called the area home.

Khan’s neighbor Jebur Nisha woke and, as she later told The Toronto Star, wondered “who was cooking chilies in the chula (Hindi for stove) at this hour.”

Her eyes began to water, and she immediately realized that something horrible was happening. A white smoke was being carried south on the winds. Immediately, people began coughing and foaming at the mouth, their eyes burning and their lungs searing.

Nadir Khan stepped outside, looked into the sky, and began yelling, “Run! The gas has leaked! Run!”

“At about 12:30 a.m., I woke to the sounds of my baby coughing,” recalled survivor Aziza Sultan (as reported to “In the half light, I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a lot of people shouting … ‘Run, run!’ Then, I started coughing, with each breath seeming as if I was breathing in fire. My eyes were burning.”

Photo by Obi.

Chemical Cloud Rolls Over the Bustee

At the Bhopal station, the white cloud began to envelop Madan Gopal Parashar’s office. In his official deposition in the criminal case against Union Carbide in 2000, he stated, “The first train on my duty was 116 up, Kushinagar Express from Bina side. This train came at 1:35. All the passengers were coughing violently, and I realized something was very wrong. There was one down train, too—a goods train called Khanna special. Another down train, Mathura special, was given ‘line clear,’ but it stayed at the outer signal until 8 a.m. All other train movements were stopped up and down the line. This was because the cabin staff was not in a condition to work.”

Before Parashar, himself, collapsed, he ordered the Kushinagar Express on, and his quick actions probably saved the lives of hundreds. He would wake a few hours later—the bodies of four victims lying on top of him and a toe tag affixed to his foot.

The noxious cloud was becoming thicker and thicker throughout the bustees surrounding the Union Carbide plant, blacking out the few faint street lamps that lit the narrow warrens and gullies of pathways between shanties. And into these tight alleys families emerged, blinded, choking on their own vomit, and confused. People began to run—a torrent of human angst and fear so overwhelming that children were torn from their parents’ hands and the sick collapsed to the streets, where they were trampled and crushed by the onrushing stampede.

“Those who fell were not picked up by anybody. They just kept falling and were trampled 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,” one survivor later recalled.

Surviving the Gas Cloud

There were some who did not get caught up in the apocalyptic maelstrom. Azaad Miyan, a Union Carbide worker, woke to the same burning sensations as everyone else. Stepping out of his hut, he could feel the wind blowing against his body, and he quickly realized that his best bet for survival was to run into the wind, not with it. Miyan put a wet cloth against his face—something he had learned at the plant—and took off running north, calling to his neighbors Inyat and Bano Khan to join him. Bano started running with Miyan, but her husband, Inyat, grabbed their two children and began running the other way. Miyan spent days after the disaster looking for Inyat. When he finally found him, he said that Inyat’s body was so hard, “like wood.”

Those who ran with the wind with the toxic smoke surrounding them quickly succumbed to the poison’s effects. Most were reduced to absolute blindness, and with each gasping breath, they seared their lungs and poisoned their nervous systems. They lost control of all bodily functions; people started urinating and defecating as they ran. Their vomit was so heavy that most choked to death where they stood or fell. Pregnant women had spontaneous, bloody abortions as they frantically raced down the streets.

Death Toll Mounts

Estimates from Union Carbide officials early on December 3rd placed the immediate death toll at more than 3,500. Yet, sanitation and other municipal workers claimed to have collected more than 15,000 bodies. And taking into account the number of death shrouds sold by the end of the week, 8,000 people had died.

What is known is that a half-million people were exposed to the toxic MIC cloud as it swept through the many slum colonies surrounding the plant.

While the cause and blame for the leak are still being fought in the courts, a number of factors can be attributed to the high mortality rates. First, the Union Carbide plant had no established safety procedures to deal with a leak on this scale, nor were any evacuation plans created for the multiple bustees that surrounded the plant.

People were left to their own devices, and, in the chaos, they often chose poorly. Police officers instructed people to run, which probably exacerbated the problem: By running, the people took in breath after deep breath of the toxins, effectively sealing their fates. Both the police and residents of J.P. Nagar and the other slum colonies were unaware that the simple act of lying on the floor and covering their faces with a wet towel or shirt would have dramatically increased their survival odds.

“The best way to mitigate the ‘monster’ living next door is to have an understanding of the threat in your community … ”

What Had Happened?

The bustees, themselves, comprised another factor. They were densely packed—nearly 20 percent of Bhopal’s residents lived in the 156 slum colonies—and they lacked the most basic necessities (including phone service and water). Consequently, the infrastructure could not handle the swarm of frightened and sick people running for their lives. Narrow streets, poor transportation, and an overwhelmed medical system ultimately doomed many people.

The survivors faced years of debilitating injuries, including respiratory diseases, cancer, and what one doctor called “monstrous births.” Women’s menstrual cycles were radically altered, and children were born with birth defects and severe learning disabilities.

Those who escaped with their lives “were the unlucky ones,” lamented Rashida Bi. “The lucky ones are those who died on that night.”

Living Beside Monsters

Many people have wondered if another Bhopal disaster could happen again. And, time after time, history responds, yes—although not to the scale of devastation seen during the early morning of December 3, 1984.

In September 2001, an explosion at the AZF Fertilizer factory in Toulouse, France, killed 29 people and injured 2,500. An explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, in April 2013 killed 14 and injured 160. And, most recently (August 2015), in Tianjin, China, two explosions rocked a container storage station at the port. Estimates put the death toll at 159, with 14 missing.

In the United States, one in three Americans lives close enough to a chemical facility to be in danger of a toxic leak. The biggest culprit for Americans is chlorine, which is widely used by local municipalities in their water treatment facilities. This is the same chemical that was widely utilized in the trenches of France and Germany during World War I and again during the Gulf War.

This is a map of schools within 1 mile of a chemical facility. Source: Center for Effective Government

A Greenpeace study found that in all, there are 473 chemical facilities that put more than 100,000 people in danger. Of those, 89 facilities threaten the lives of more than 1 million. Of the 12,000 facilities that work with one of the 140 chemicals monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, 2,500 acknowledge that in a worst-case disaster scenario, their facilities would endanger the lives of 10,000 to 1 million people; and 4,400 facilities identified their worst-case scenarios as endangering between 1,000 and 9,999 lives.

One thing to note is that the West Fertilizer Company was not on any watch list; neither the EPA nor the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) via its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, established post 9/11, includes ammonium nitrate as one of their 140 dangerous chemicals. Additionally, DHS received no information, because reporting by chemical companies is largely voluntary—despite the fact that the West facility was storing 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate (1,350 times the amount needed to trigger a report to DHS).

The best way to mitigate the “monster” living next door is to have an understanding of the threat in your community, know the evacuation procedures and routes, and do what you can beforehand to ease the anxieties that are sure to rise during an emergency.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide. 

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