The horror began just after midnight on December 3 1984. White vapour streamed into the air at a pesticides factory in the Indian city of Bhopal. The gas formed a dense fog that swept through neighbourhoods nearby. People woke up coughing, vomiting and struggling to breathe. They ran out of their homes trying to escape the air. In the panic children were ripped from their parents’ grasp and some were trampled underfoot. Many simply choked and collapsed. The lucky ones made it to the hospital two miles away.
According to Amnesty International, 7,000 people died that night. The figure doubled in the ensuing weeks and months. Union Carbide, the American company that owned the pesticides plant, had ignored grave warnings about its safety. The disaster had been predicted by a journalist, Raj Keswani, who had written several weeks earlier: “We are all about to be annihilated.”
The morning after the leak, the city woke up to the news of the tragedy, but no one knew how far the gas had spread or how to protect themselves against it. There was confusion about what the gas even was.
At Miriam’s School for the Handicapped, the Sisters of St Joseph of Chambery sealed the doors with mats and placed tubs of water in the children’s rooms. Keeping moisture in the air was believed to help against the gas. This was just hearsay, though – no official advice had been given on the procedures to follow.
The next day the Sisters received a call from the archbishop. He asked if they might be able to go and help at the hospital nearest the disaster. It was “not pleasant”, he warned them. But this did not deter the Sisters, with all four of them volunteering to help.
Sister Christopher Whelan, 81, who grew up in Dublin but has lived in Bhopal since 1952, was one of them. On the way to the hospital the roads “had bodies on them”, Sister Christopher says. “It was an awful sight, something that you don’t forget.”
When they arrived at Hamidia hospital the corridors were packed with bodies.
Some were “lying on top of one another”. The living and the dead lay next to each other. Sister Christopher recalls that “deaths were taking place constantly”.
The women’s task was to try to bring families together. The victims were in a stupor and blinded by fluid from their eyes. So the Sisters went up to each person, describing the clothes of the people they were lying next to, asking if they knew them. Once families had been grouped together, they were carried out of the hospital into tents provided by the military. The idea was that if they woke up they would be surrounded by family rather than strangers.
The Sisters also tried to clean up. Vomit and faeces had created a “terrible stench”. They cleaned the victims’ bodies, Sister Christopher explains, but had to leave them in soiled clothes because they had no fresh ones to give them.
Some of the children could not be grouped with a family. The Sisters offered to look after them. They were given a corridor in the basement of the hospital and covered the children with blankets – one on top, two underneath – to stave off the winter cold. Two Sisters looked after them during the day. The other two, including Sister Christopher, did the night shift.
One by one the children began to emerge from their stupor. The first girl who did so they bathed and put in new clothes. Afterwards, instead of returning to her own spot, she squeezed in next to a little boy. The Sisters asked if she knew him, and she replied that he was her brother. When they were able to open their eyes, other children went and sat next to their classmates.
Sister Christopher has fond memories of the children. “They created a relationship with us. They came and put their arms around us,” she says.
Meanwhile, parents arrived looking for the children they had lost. “It was heartbreaking,” Sister Christopher recalls. “Some of them would recognise a child and they were so happy. ‘This is my child, Sister!’
They had been looking for them everywhere.” Other parents left to continue their miserable search elsewhere.
After a few weeks, the care of the children was taken over by the state government. The Sisters of St Joseph would never see them again. Sister Christopher remembers that one of their charges had become known as the “miracle baby”. She had apparently survived after her mother collapsed on top of her, pushing her into a gutter free from the gas. Sister Christopher says the newspapers reported that she was now married and had a degree. “She was a beautiful little baby,” she says.
Only two months later did scientists work out why so many had died. The gas had included hydrogen cyanide, which stops the body being able to absorb oxygen. The slowness with which this detail emerged led to suspicions – aired in the New Scientist a year later – that this information had been suppressed by Union Carbide.
For the treatment of victims this information was critical. Doctors had previously focused on alleviating symptoms. But cyanide poisoning can be treated with an antidote directly.
The following year Sister Christopher began to feel the effects of the gas. She felt listless, she says, when usually she was a “fanatic for cleanliness” and “hyperactive”. She found herself giving up on everyday tasks. “Under the bed there was dust,” she recalls. “I said: ‘I don’t care, I don’t want to sweep it.’”
When the Sisters persuaded her to go for tests she discovered there was a “very high level” of cyanide in her system. “The doctors said: ‘How are you alive, Sister?’ People died of that level. I said: ‘It must be a miracle.’”
Over the next six months she had 19 injections of the antidote, sodium thiosulphate, until the cyanide was diminished to a level her body could deal with. Such treatment had not been available to other victims.
A more lasting effect of the gas leak, Sister Christopher says, was on her voice. “I used to sing beautifully. I could reach high C. And now I can’t sing a note.” Of course, she says, this is not a bother. “I can pray, I don’t have to sing. I join in on a very low note – the Sisters don’t mind.”
Her sympathy, she says, is with the victims who cannot get the help they need. The people living close to the plant, who likely suffered most, are well treated, she says, thanks to $470 million in compensation paid by Union Carbide in 1989. Yet tens of thousands of people in Bhopal still have chronic health problems related to the gas tragedy and have had no help at all. If you have severe asthma, for instance, “no one will ever admit that it’s an effect of the gas”, she says.
Thirty years later, several lawsuits are still dragging on. India’s supreme court, for instance, is considering whether or not the compensation from Union Carbide, now owned by the Dow Chemical Company, was adequate. Sister Christopher says she has the “utmost sympathy” for campaigners. “Every year there are protests, but it hasn’t helped,” she says.
I ask Sister Christopher if she ever considered leaving Bhopal. In the aftermath of the gas tragedy many people moved out of the city for good. She says that leaving was never an option. “My children are here. I love them – where would I go?”