Ashay Chitre, a film maker living in Bhopal’s prestigious Bharat Bhawan, built by the state government to attract artists to this central Indian city, heard a commotion outside his window early in the morning at about 3 a m. It was a chill December and all the windows of Chitre’s house were closed. As Chitre and his wife Rohini, seven months pregnant, opened the window, they got a whiff of gas. They immediately felt breathless and their eyes and noses began to stream with a yellow fluid.
Sensing danger, the couple grabbed a bedsheet and ran out of the house. Unknown to them, all the neighbouring bungalows, which had telephones, had already been evacuated. Their immediate neighbour, state labour minister Shamsunder Patidar had fled. The chief minister, who lives only 300 m from the Chitres had probably also been informed in time.
Outside their house the Chitres found chaos. There was gas everywhere and people were running for their lives in every direction, with nobody to tell them the safe way out. Some fell down vomiting and died. The panic was so great that people left their children behind, or did not stop to pick up those overcome by exhaustion or the gas. At one place, the couple saw a family stop running and sit down: “We will die together”, they said. Another person ran for 15 km in a desperate bid to escape. A passing police van had no clue to the safe direction. Stepping over dead bodies, the Chitres ran towards the local polytechnic, half-a-kilometre away, where they stopped and decided not to go further.
Two hours later, at about 5 am a police van arrived announcing that it was safe to go back home. But nobody believed the policemen. From the polytechnic, the Chitres rang friends on the other side of the town for help. They returned home three days later. Their pomegranate tree had turned yellow and the peepul tree, black. Three days after that fateful night, Rohini began to experience pain whenever she exercised and Ashay felt his legs buckle. They immediately left for Bombay to see a neurologist to ascertain their fate and that of their unborn child.
Mass panic There were thousands of others that night in Bhopal for whom this macabre drama began much earlier and who were a lot less luckier than the Chitres. Most of them were the city’s poor, living in the sprawling settlements opposite and around the Union Carbide factory. One of them is Ramnarayan Jadav, a driver of the city corporation, who says that he had started feeling the gas around 11.30 itself. But he stayed on for at least another 45 minutes because “this much gas used to leak every eighth day and we used to feel irritation in the chest and in the eyes. But finally everything used to calm down.” Even if the company had set off its warning siren then, many could have escaped.