Aruna is exhausted. Her day began around 4 am on Thursday, 7 May, when neighbours woke her up by frantically banging on her door. Overwhelmed by an alarming smell, she barely had a few seconds to comprehend that there was a toxic gas in the air. She carried her three-year-old child and instantly ran outside her house, along with her parents.
“My daughter was throwing up so violently, I was scared she would die. All around us, people had collapsed like dead birds. The ambulances hadn’t arrived yet. People who were still conscious and had vehicles tried to move a few people away. Others were running helter-skelter. We didn’t know what was happening but I think we all thought we were dying,” Aruna says.
She recalled the events of Thursday morning, when many villages in Visakhapatnam woke up to a living nightmare, with styrene gas leaking from the LG Polymer factory in Gopalapatnam.
Hundreds of people from the neighbouring villages woke up to the toxic fumes. Many others either remained unconscious inside their homes, or passed out while running into the streets. Venkatapuram, where Aruna lives, is closest to the factory, which makes it the worst-affected village.
With no vehicle of her own, Aruna took her three-year-old and elderly parents and went to a relative’s house across the street. “We closed all the doors and windows and remained inside. The ambulances arrived more than an hour later. The odour also seemed to have gone down a little. That was when we ventured out,” she said.
While the people lying unconscious in the streets were being hauled into the ambulances, Aruna’s neighbour, who had an autorickshaw, took her family to the hospital.
‘People Collapsing Before Our Eyes’
Around this time, Sudhakar, who lives a few hundred metres away from Venkatapuram, began to grasp the seriousness of the situation. “At first, we didn’t take it seriously. The smell was bothering us and making our eyes and throat burn. But we thought it would go away,” he says.
Around 5am, word reached him about what happened at the factory. “People were collapsing in front of our eyes. They seemed to be having an epileptic seizure and would mumble something before passing out,” says Sudhakar.
“If we hadn’t broken into people’s houses and carried them out, every house in these villages could have had a dead body inside,” he says.
Nearby, in Nandamuri Nagar, Rajesh and his family remained locked inside their house since morning. “We got to know about the leak around 4 am. We felt our eyes burning and experienced a severe headache. But we didn’t dare to walk out into the black smoke. We shut the doors and windows and decided to stay in,” Rajesh says.
After getting through the day unharmed, Rajesh, along with his brother and parents, have decided to move to their relative’s house, with authorities asking people to shift to another location until the air is deemed safe. But not everyone has been as lucky as Rajesh.
As Rajesh and his family left their home, many others have returned, to safeguard their property on hearing news of thefts in the abandoned houses.
After Aruna and her family were treated at the hospital, she returned to Venkatapuram on Thursday evening. She wanted to check on her neighbours and relatives, and to pack a few things before heading back to her daughter and parents, who are staying with their relatives in Pendurthi.
She stopped on her way to join a protest outside the gate to LG Polymer, where people had gathered to demand that the LG management take responsibility for the leak and relocate the factory.
‘How Could the Company Let This Happen?’
“In the morning, when I saw little children collapsing in front of my eyes, it felt like our lives had no value for them. We could die and it would not have mattered to them. How could the company let this happen, how could they be so careless?” she asks.
Some of Aruna’s relatives, who live nearby, are untraceable. “Their phones are switched off. People left without much planning. Now, we don’t even know which hospital they might be in,” she says. Her cousin, who also lives in Venkatapuram, is still under observation at a hospital.
“My father is feeling better, but my daughter and mother are still disturbed,” she says.
“When asked how the leak had physically affected her, she says, “I don’t know what to say. Even in the morning, I knew I was sick, but I couldn’t really think about how I felt. I was afraid I would faint if I did, and I couldn’t afford to do that. I had to be there for my daughter.”
(The story was first published in The News Minute and has been republished with permission)