Gas continued to leak out of the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) a day after it had killed six persons, including two SAIL deputy general managers, with authorities on the spot yet to establish the source of the leakage – a gas pipeline or a poorly maintained, 30-year-old water pipeline. In fact, three more employees fell unconscious Friday, allegedly while trying to detect and plug the source, though the management put it down to a heat stroke.
What is clear that the water pipeline, which was supplying water to the gas cleaning plants for the blast furnace, had burst. According to BSP spokesperson, this likely caused caused carbon monoxide to flow out of the gas cleaning plant into the water pipeline, and then leak out. According to another theory among employees, the pipeline burst and the resultant water outflow could have caused the gas leakage from an adjoining gas pipeline.
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“It’s still not clear how gas leaked. We are ordering a high-level probe,” said Vijay Mehra, BSP’s chief communication officer.
Some employees said gas had already been leaking in smaller quantities over the last 24 hours, before the water pipeline burst. They say they had brought it to the notice of higher officials but no one could detect the source.
When the pipe burst, the force of the water washed contract labourer Vikash Verma away. It was not clear then that gas too was leaking, for officials arrived at the spot without wearing masks. Signs of the gas leak came later. “One by one, birds perched on adjoining buildings started falling. They had died. I realised that it was not just water, some gas had leaked too,” said a CISF personnel.
CISF personnel, incidentally, were on the spot because of a scheduled mock drill. They helped rescue a number of people from the plant; sources in the force estimate the toll might have crossed 50 otherwise.
As the gas leaked, BSP employees at the site where the pipe had burst fell unconscious and the forces began evacuating them. By then having inhaled the gas themselves, many personnel too fell unconscious and were admitted to hospital. “Since we were there in very large numbers, we could evacuate employees to safety,” said a personnel.
Members of the BSP employee union alleged that the management has a history of neglecting security. They said many pipelines have not been replaced in the last three decades and there was little maintenance. After three employees fell unconscious, a colleague of theirs, Vishwanath, said, “We did had wanted to go today but were forced to go.” Mehra denied any connection with the leak: “The three just got some heat stroke and were admitted in hospitals for precaution,” he said.
The incident came just days after a court had sentenced two SAIL officials to a year’s imprisonment after an employee died during an accident. In the last 15 months, 13 SAIL employees have died at its flagship plant.
Durg collector R Sangeetha has ordered an ADM-level probe.