Dec 3, 1984: A Night of Death in Bhopal

Death and Chaos in the City

Death came hurtling of a clear sky on December 3rd, 1984. A cold midnight wind blew, with stars brilliant as they are in central India, glistening through the thin pall of cooking-fire smoke that typically hung above the city. Here and there, braziers were burning to warm those who were obliged to be out late. At the factory which so many had learned to fear, a thin plume of white vapor began streaming from a high structure. Caught by the wind, it became a haze and blew downward to mix with smoke coming from near the ground.

Map of Union Carbide factory at Bhopal, India

A dense fog formed. Nudged by the wind, it rolled across the road right outside the factory and into the alleys on the other side. Here the houses were packed close, ill-built, with badly-fitting doors and windows. Those within were roused in darkness to the sound of screams. The gases already were already upon them--in their eyes, noses and throats--and felt like fire.

"It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies"

Remembers Aziza Sultan, a survivor: "At about 12.30 am I woke to the sound of my baby coughing badly. In the half light I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a lot of people shouting. They were shouting 'run, run!' Then I started coughing with each breath seeming as if I was breathing in fire. My eyes were burning."

Another survivor, Champa Devi Shukla, remembers that "it felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing, even if they were wearing nothing at all. People were only concerned about how they would save their lives. They just ran. Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they just kept falling, and were trampled on 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."

"People simply started dying in the most hideous ways"

In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Photo by Prakash HatvalneMany were crushed in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas. "The force of the human torrent wrenched children's hands from their parents' grasp. Families were whirled apart," reported the Bhopal Medical Appeal in 1994. "The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people were reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion."

Immeasurable Devastation

Photo by Prakash Hatvalne

When dawn broke over the city, thousands of bodies lay in heaps in the streets. Even far from the factory, near one of the major lakes, at Rani Hira Pati ka Mahal the ground was so smothered with bodies that you could not avoid treading on them. The army dumped hundreds of bodies in the surrounding forests; a nearby river was so choked with corpses that they formed log-jams against the arches of bridges. Families and entire communities were wiped out, leaving no one to identify them. According to Rashida Bi, who survived the gas but lost five family members to cancers, thosewho escaped with their lives “are the unlucky ones;the lucky ones are those who died on THAT NIGHT.”  Read more survivor testimonies of the tragedy, and how their lives have changed since.

How many thousands died in the immediate aftermath?  No one knows, exactly. Carbide claims 3,800. Municipal workers who picked up bodies withtheir own hands, loading them onto trucks for burial in mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Survivors, basing their estimates on the number of shrouds sold in the city, conservatively claim about 8,000 died in the first week. The official death toll to date (local government figures) stands at more than 20,000 and even now, twenty-six years later, at least one person per day dies in Bhopal from the injuries they sustained on THAT NIGHT. Why did this happen? Learn more in Predictable and Preventable.