By Sudarshan Varadhan

CHENNAI (Reuters) – A chemical gas leak at an LG Polymers plant in southern India on Thursday killed at least nine people, and emergency services rushed more than 300 to hospital and evacuated hundreds more from nearby areas, a police official in Andhra Pradesh said.

South Korean battery maker LG Chemical Ltd, the owner of the facility, located around 14 kilometers away from Visakhapatnam city, said the gas leak had been brought under control.

“We are looking into the exact damages, cause of the death and details of the incident,” the company said in a statement.

The commissioner of the Visakhapatnam city corporation said styrene leaked from the plant during the early hours of the morning, when families in the surrounding villages were asleep.

Srijana Gummalla, Commissioner, Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation, told Reuters that the plant had been reopened in the past few days after India relaxed a nationwide lockdown, that had been imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

Swarupa Rani, an Assistant Commissioner of Police in Visakhapatnam told Reuters that at least nine people had died and between 300-400 were hospitalised. Another 1,500 people had been evacuated, mostly from a neighbouring village.

Areas within an approximately 3-kilometer (nearly 2-mile)radius of the plant were vulnerable, the municipal corporation said in a tweet. Cross-referencing maps of the affected area, there is at least one coronavirus containment zone in the neighbourhood.

In an interview with local news channel NDTV, S.N. Pradhan, director general of the National Disaster Response Force, said the situation is now under control at the site.

“The gas leakage has been stopped and the quantities should now be more manageable and we should be able to evacuate people to safety,” said Pradhan.

LISTLESS AND UNCONSCIOUS

Local revenue official B. V. Rani said she got a call at around 4 a.m. Thursday from a panicking police sub-inspector near the facility. “He asked me to come to the spot immediately,” Rani told Reuters.

When Rani went there, she saw that people had collapsed unconscious in the village adjoining the 60-acre site of the plant.

“I personally helped more than 15 people get to an ambulance who had tried to run away from the village but dropped down a few metres away,” she said.

Video from Reuters partner ANI shot later on Thursday showed emergency workers in the area rushing to help victims, some of whom appeared to be listless and disoriented.

A number of victims lay unconscious streetside, as some volunteers fanned them and others rushed to carry them into ambulances.

At least one child was among the dead, a policeman at the site told ANI, and video showed at least two other children being lifted into an ambulance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he had spoken to officials from the federal home ministry and the National Disaster Management Authority, who were monitoring the crisis.

“I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” Modi said in a tweet.

Thursday’s incident evoked memories of a gas leak at a factory of U.S. chemical firm Union Carbide that killed thousands in the city of Bhopal in 1984.

TOP PETROCHEMICAL MAKER

LG Chem, South Korea’s top petrochemical maker by capacity, took over the facility previously owned by Hindustan Polymers and renamed it as LG Polymers India Private Limited (LGPI) in July, 1997, according to a company website.

The LG Polymers plant makes polystyrene products, according to a company website, which are used in manufacturing electric fan blades, cups and cutlery and containers for cosmetic products such as make up.

The raw material, styrene, is highly flammable and releases a poisonous gas when burnt.

In a statement, LG Chem said that the gas emitted in the leak can cause nausea and dizziness when inhaled, adding that it was seeking to ensure casualties received treatment quickly.

LG Chem operates two naphtha crackers in South Korea, with a total ethylene output capacity of 2.5 million tonnes each year.

It also makes electric vehicle batteries and General Motors and Volkswagen are among its customers.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Derek Francis and Euan Rocha; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Anil D’Silva & Simon Cameron-Moore)