Three workers died and 15 were injured in a massive explosion in a reactor plant of a chemical factory in the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) industrial area in Tarapur, over 100 km from Mumbai late on Thursday night. The police on Friday registered a case of accidental death as operations to control the fire, which spread across six factories becaus of the blast, continued till Friday night. At least three workers are critically injured.
The blast occurred at 11.10 pm on the first floor of Novaphene Specialties Pvt Ltd. High pressure and high temperature reportedly led to an uncontrolled and unstable solvent reaction, causing a explosion. “The vibrations were felt several kilometers away. It felt like an earthquake. Windowpanes in Boisar police station (about 3 km from the spot) also broke,” said Yogesh Chauhan, who holds additional charge of senior inspector at MIDC police station. Local people recounted that the explosion was followed by over 20 smaller explosions as the fire spread to chemical tankers of adjoining factories.
From Novaphene, the fire spread to other units — Aarti Drugs, Prachi Pharmaceuticals Pvt Ltd, Bharat Rasayan, Unimax Chemicals and Darbar Industries within two hours. Workers from those in Aarti, Prachi, Novaphene and other factories managed to escape. MIDC police at Tarapur have registered an FIR against Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) under Section 56 and 57 of Disaster Management Act 2005 after collector’s instructions.
The Collector asked BARC to provide fire brigade service on Thursday night and allegedly got no aid from BARC in the Tarapur plant fire case. “It is violation of the National Disaster Act. We expected atomic plant to aid in fire fighting,” he told The Indian Express. In addition, the collector has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the blast. Of the 15 injured, eight have been admitted to Vikas Hospital, five in Thunga and two in Anand Hospital. The deceased — Alok Nath, Chandpratap Agadia and Pintu Kumar Gautam — have been identified as workers of Aarti Drugs.
Preliminary investigation by the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH) showed Novaphene Ltd has violated norms by employing untrained personnel for the job of mixing chemical solvents. On Thursday night, labourers on night shift had mixed “magnesium turnings and tetra hydro chloride in the reactor. “Methane chloride gas was added to it. The solvent became active reactive. When temperature and pressure rose, it became uncontrollable and led to a ‘vapour cloud’,” said Surendra Dhawad, joint director at DISH. The quantity of solvents in the reactor is yet to be ascertained.
Documents accessed by The Indian Express from Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) showed that Novaphene Ltd received permission to handle hazardous waste in 2015 up to 2020 for manufacture of alcohol acetate, dimethyl isosorbide, octyl sallicylate, Grignard reagents, ethyl hexyl glycerine and esters. Police are investigating whether excessive quantity was added to the reactor. “We are also checking if there were procedural violations,” said police inspector Chauhan of the MIDC police.
Police findings suggest seven workers at Novaphene Ltd fled the building as soon as they realised the reactor was becoming unstable and was beyond their control. The explosion’s intensity shattered window panes in the entire lane, ripped overhead cables, damaged walls and started the fires in the adjoining factories where tankers filled with solvents kept exploding till 5 am on Friday.
One of the workers, Sandeep Agadia (21), was on the second floor of Aarti Drugs when the explosion occurred. “We could smell gas leak and see smoke before the blast. Suddenly, one side of the wall exploded and a shower of bricks flew at us. All of us ran out,” he said. His younger brother Chandpratap (19) was sipping tea with Pintu and Alok on the first floor. The blast’s impact killed them. The post-mortem findings showed they suffered no burn injuries. “Injuries were blunt trauma, they were blown by the blast’s impact,” a police officer said.
The three were taken to Tarapur primary health centre for post-mortem. While Chandpratap’s body was taken to their village in Palghar, Alok and Pintu’s bodies are slated to be transported to Madhya Pradesh where their families live. Novaphene’s website shows that it manufactures specialty chemicals and cosmetic preservatives, dealing in high purity acid and acid anhydrides. Nonaphene has a manufacturing unit in Dahisar. Prachi Ltd is an iodine salt manufacturer, while Aarti Drugs manufactures vitamins and antibiotics and owns eight factories in Tarapur MIDC. These three units suffered the maximum damage. Eight fire engines and six water tankers were initially rushed to the spot. According to Palghar collector Dr Prashant Nanaware, fire engines were also provided by Reliance Thermal, the Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation and the Tarapur Atomic Power Station. The call went to the fire brigade at 11.23 pm and the fire engines reached the spot by 11.36 pm. “The fire was too big to control. We allowed the solvents to burn out on their own to prevent another explosion,” said Anand Parab, the fire station master. According to Uday Dange, the manager at Unimax where fire gutted half the factory, standard operating protocol lapses are suspected to have caused the explosion. “Chemicals are always supposed to be handled with care. There must have been some negligence,” he said.
Throughout Friday, thick black smoke coupled with combination of green and orange vapours escaped from the burning factories. MPCB official Manish Holkar said, “A mixture of various solvents from different factories have caught fire. We know it is toxic but cannot comment on which gas is being released as the blasts were back to back.” Local people, police and the fire brigade took to face masks in the entire neighbourhood surrounding the blast site. Tarapur MIDC has over 1,100 chemical factories. Collector Nanaware said he had asked for a safety audit of all factories three months ago. “The report is still pending,” he said.