Friday, 28 November 2014

Bhopal gas tragedy: One night, 876 autopsies

It was around four in the morning when the calling bell rang at D.K. Satpathy’s home in Idgah Hills on 3 December 1984.

“Try to reach the mortuary as soon as possible, there are casualties beyond our imagination,” was the message received by Satpathy, then a 35-year-old forensic doctor with the state government’s Hamidia Hospital.

On the way to the mortuary, Satpathy saw that the entire campus of the adjacent Gandhi Medical College was flooded with people who were visibly ill. Some were gasping, others were vomiting, and most were weeping.

Scores of others lay dead. Doctors were giving the patients symptomatic treatment. The casualty medical officer informed Satpathy that around midnight, people started coming in with burning eyes, breathlessness and nausea.

Unknown to Satpathy and his colleagues, four hours earlier, about 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, along with other chemicals, had leaked into the atmosphere of Bhopal from the Union Carbide India Ltd factory, which was surrounded by several heavily inhabited settlements.

The leak of the poisonous MIC gas, the main ingredient in Sevin pesticides manufactured by Union Carbide, was caused by a backflow of water in tank E610 at the factory. It is now recognized as the worst industrial disaster in history.

By the end of the night, the lethal gas had spread across an area of around 8 sq. km. By the end of 3 December, Satpathy says he had performed autopsies on 876 bodies. By the end of December, this number rose to 1,300.

By 1996, Satpathy had performed autopsies on 11,000 bodies, all related to the gas leak. That night, Satpathy was informed, someone from the hospital had called up the medical officer of Union Carbide factory.

“It is just tear gas. Just wash their eyes and mouth with water. It will affect patients only mildly,” the medical officer had responded. By the time Satpathy reached the mortuary on the morning of 3 December, there were nearly 500 dead bodies there.

Satpathy cleared his head. His mission as a forensic expert was to identity the person, carry out the post-mortem, ascertain the cause of death and fix responsibility. There were four forensic experts at the hospital.

It seemed like an impossible task to complete autopsies on so many bodies, so they decided to choose a random sample because the symptoms were similar and they had died in similar circumstances.

The remaining bodies were merely examined externally. Each dead body was photographed. Most were unclaimed and unidentified. Without exception, every person had died of respiratory failure; there was froth in their mouths and noses, serious pulmonary damage, their eyes were red, and their skin had rashes.

Satpathy found one peculiarity: the blood in both the veins and the arteries of the bodies was red, whereas, usually that in the veins is darker. “One of the chemicals that can cause this is cyanide,” he says. The next day, Satpathy and the other doctors were informed that the leaked gas was MIC; the team stored all the collected tissue and the blood.

Meanwhile, a German scientist, Don Derreira, who had arrived in Bhopal to establish that the tissue and blood had elements of MIC, informed the doctors that the appropriate treatment for exposure to MIC was sodium thiosulfate—administered intravenously—which would cause all the toxic elements to pass out through urine.

All the tissues were analysed and upto 22 compounds were isolated, out of which all but two were identified. All 22 compounds were also found in tank E610. “This tank was responsible, the owner was the culprit. We had linked the responsibility of the deaths. We also suggested the treatment. Our job was done,” says Satpathy.

Medical research terminated “There was much misleading on the part of Union Carbide. Apart from initially claiming the leaked gas was tear gas, they also claimed that MIC could not cross the placental blood barrier of a pregnant woman to affect the foetus,” says Satpathy, now 66 and retired, sitting at the forensic museum at the Medico-Legal Institute in Bhopal that is currently exhibiting pictures of postmortems conducted by him.

Satpathy had performed an autopsy on the body of a woman who was two months pregnant, and he found that the traces of chemicals found in her were also present in the foetus. The government showed appalling negligence toward medical and scientific research which should have been carried out to find out more about the unknown effects of MIC on the human body.

In 1985, more than 20 clinical and non-clinical research projects were sanctioned on MIC’s effect on the foetus, endemic areas, and health. But all the projects were terminated by 1990, after the completion of only two or three studies. “These studies could have been crucial because even (the) third and fourth generation could face the consequences; even genetic mutations can take place. But we were a complete failure in that regard,” says Satpathy.

“God forbid something like this happens again with the same gas—we will still not know the ABC of how to manage the disaster.” Samples were collected from the bodies and sent for analysis to various labs across the country, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. “It was very hard for us to preserve the tissue in a refrigerator for 30 years, for nothing.

One time, the fridge was out of power, and some tissue samples were completely decomposed,” Satpathy says Many of the foetuses from pregnant women killed in the disaster are still lying preserved at Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal, and the tissues are preserved in formalin. “They can be used for analysis, but no one is interested,” says Satpathy, pointing to an unresolved legacy from the world’s worst industrial tragedy.

Thursday 28 November 2014

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Man locates father's body 10 years after tsunami

A Nepalese man has identified his father's remains in Thailand 10 years after he died during the Indian Ocean Tsunami, officials said Friday.

Police officials in Thailand's Phang Nga Province confirmed that the Nepalese man had traveled to the area and exhumed his father's body.

The man was only 9 years old when his father disappeared during the tragic event which claimed more than 5,000 lives in Thailand.

The now 19-year-old had reached out to local authorities and provided a DNA sample which was matched to his father's.

"There are still 382 unidentified bodies at this cemetery," said Tanapol Songput, head of the disaster team at the Mirror Foundation which deals with identifying and reuniting the body of disaster victims to their loved ones.

"In the last 10 years, 48 bodies have been exhumed and returned to their families."

On December 26, it will be exactly a decade since the tsunami that killed about 230,000 people in over a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean.

Thursday 28 November 2014

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Families of convicted Sewol ferry crew haunted by stigma and isolation

An article explaining that not only the families of those killed are profoundly affected by a disaster..

Im Young-ae and her husband, a crew member who survived the Sewol ferry disaster, had dreamed of a peaceful retirement by the sea until their lives were upended by the April tragedy.

Their new house is finished and Im has moved in, but she is living in virtual isolation with her adult daughter.

As Im’s husband serves a five-year jail term for negligence over the ferry’s sinking, she, like the loved ones of other surviving crew members, is being treated as a pariah amid outrage in South Korea over the deaths of 304 people, mostly teenagers, on the doomed boat.

Im’s daughter, as well as her son, have quit their jobs in Seoul, unable to bear the anger directed at them.

The surviving crew members have been vilified since video footage showed they were among the first to be rescued as teenagers on a school trip waited in their cabins as instructed, drowning when the overloaded vessel sank before help arrived.

In South Korea, a person’s shame or honor is profoundly affected by family association.

“People look at us so wickedly. . . . I don’t want anyone to recognize me. I avoid people as much as I can,” Im said from her brick cottage on Jindo island, with a deck overlooking the ocean on the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula.

Jindo is Im’s hometown. It is also not far from where the ferry capsized.

“Not just one or two but too many kids died. . . . It hurts me more because my husband is alive. Because he is alive, we feel sorry and thankful,” she said.

Im spoke on condition that her husband not be identified for fear that could ignite more public resentment and hurt an appeal against his conviction.

All 15 surviving crew members are appealing their convictions in the hope of lighter sentences. Prison terms handed down this month ranged from five years for some crew members to 36 years for the Sewol’s captain.

The ferry sank while making a turn on a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. The vessel was later found to be defective, with additions made to increase passenger capacity making it top-heavy and unstable.

A defense lawyer who represented some of the convicted crew members said their families were tormented by remorse.

“One defendant’s wife . . . didn’t want to appeal because it might not be the right thing to do for the sake of the victims’ families. But for their own little kids, he wanted to be released a little earlier to be with them,” the lawyer said.

Another legal source involved in the case said there would be little change in defense strategy in the appeals, with the focus on trying to reduce sentences, not overturn convictions, by saying the crew members were largely helpless, and were remorseful.

Inside the prison in the city of Gwangju, the crew members are in solitary confinement over concern other inmates might try to harm them, the lawyer said.

The lawyer and the legal source asked not to be identified due to the legal proceedings and the controversial nature of the case. Other families declined to talk to Reuters.

Im’s daughter, 31, said she had contemplated suicide but changed her mind after realizing it would hurt her father, who joined the Sewol crew last year after attempts at running small businesses on the Korean mainland didn’t work out.

“Dad is sorry that we have to go through this because of him,” she said, asking that her name not be used.

“In his letters he calls himself ‘ugly dad,’ ‘stupid dad.’ “

Her brother, who remains in Seoul, no longer sees his friends and keeps to himself after reading hostile online comments about the crew, said Im, 56, adding she herself is suffering depression, insomnia and has lost weight.

But some sympathy exists.

“It shouldn’t be a case of guilt by association. The families of the crew can’t be blamed,” said Kwon Oh-bok, whose brother and nephew are still missing at sea.

Kwon has been on Jindo ever since the disaster, hoping to retrieve their bodies. He is still waiting.

Friday 28 November 2014

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