Faces and eyes stinging, gasping for breath - the hospitals in south Mumbai found it hard to cope with the stream of patients that arrived begging for help. (See
At 3.15 on Wednesday morning, a gas leak from a chlorine cylinder at the Mumbai Port Trust filled the air.
It was stored at a warehouse for hazardous cargo. Fortunately, the building is flanked by the sea on one side. Industrial facilities lie on the other, which meant that those affected would be a limited number -70 people are currently in hospital, eight are reported to be in critical condition.
Among them, the students of a college hostel located near the warehouse, and labourers who were sleeping outside the dormitory. ''The patients are having respiratory problems and it's not fatal. The gas leak happened in the area where they were sleeping. There are 14 students and all others are labourers,'' said TP Lahane, a senior doctor at JJ Hospital. (Watch:
Students affected by Mumbai gas leak)
"We smelled something foul...we called the fire brigade...it arrived within 20 minutes...they called police vans...and then we were taken to JJ Hospital," said a young student from the hostel that was affected.
For more than six hours, fire-fighters tried to neutralize the gas filling the air with sodium hydroxide sprays. The major fear: that there are more than a hundred cylinders similar to the one that caused this morning's disaster lying in the same warehouse. "That is supposed to be an empty cylinder of chlorine, but sometimes you have residual chlorine which remains in the cylinder and that leaked out," explained Rahul Asthana, the Deputy Chairman of the Mumbai Port Trust. So who is responsible for them? "They were not taken by the importer and they are lying confiscated here in the hazardous cargo go-down," said Asthana.
A 45-member team of the National Disaster Response Force has been brought in from Pune to figure out how to safely dispose the remaining cylinders. "Out of 105 cylinders that have been found, 100 are clean but five still have chlorine in them. We are trying to neutralise them on the spot," said SA Ahmed, Assistant Commandant of the National Disaster Response Force. One container takes six hours to neutralise and these should be cleaned by tomorrow morning, he added. (Watch: Maharashtra Health Minister on chlorine leak)
Ahmed also said, "To ensure safety we have asked people to leave the area and have cordoned it off. Both colleges in the area have been evacuated. I have requested the state government to check if there are other cylinders like this in other locations."
The big questions that officials now have to answer: Given that these cylinders were confiscated 15 years ago, why have they still not been disposed off when it was clear that these contained hazardous material? Further, why did nobody seem aware that the cylinders still had some chlorine in them?
The Shipping Ministry has also ordered the Mumbai Port Trust to file a detailed report on how such a leak could occur. "The Mumbai Port Trust is checking its records to find out if any action had been taken for the disposal of hazardous material in the past," said an official statement from the Mumbai Port Trust.
Police have filed a case against unknown people under the Environment Protection Act.