B K Singh, deputy general manager at Bhilai Steel Plant, was winding up for home on Thursday evening when he was told the main header of a pump house that supplied water to the gas cleaning plant of the blast furnaces had ruptured.
The 53-year-old Singh, who had assumed charge of the water supply department only 12 days ago, put his bag aside and left for the pump house. On the way, he came across N K Katariya, another deputy general manager, getting into his car.
Katariya, also 53, joined Singh when he heard about the flooding. The water was a threat to the blast furnaces and could have shut Bhilai Steel Plant, flagship unit of state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL). The two managers, with other employees, rushed to the pump house, unaware death was awaiting them.
As water supply to the gas cleaning plant was stopped, there was a sudden drop in pressure, and gas from the blast furnace scrubbers entered the water pipeline. A deadly cocktail of methane and carbon monoxide erupted from the broken water line and killed six of those trying to fix it.
“They had not taken any precautions against a gas leak,” a senior SAIL executive said, adding the team was repairing a water line and the gas could not be smelt or seen.
One of the survivors, Ramesh, said the group had seen pigeons falling from their perches in the pump house. “But by then, it was too late. The team working on the line started dropping one by one,” he added.
Bhilai Steel Plant claimed this was the first such accident in 50 years. The body of a contract worker, Vikas Verma, was found after the water was drained, an exercise that went on through the night.
A Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) team conducting a mock drill nearby rushed to the pump house. By then, the fire service had also reached. They, too, were affected by the poisonous gas.
The CISF team managed to evacuate people from the area. One of the jawans posted in Bhilai’s Sector 9 hospital, where the affected people had been admitted, said more would have died had it not been for the CISF’s efforts.
When the Bhilai Steel Plant management realised there was a gas leak, it shut all units. Production was stopped on Friday, with no official word on when it would resume.
The management did not inform the public about the tragedy till a Chhattisgarh minister reportedly took a senior executive to task. At 11 pm on Thursday, the plant issued a statement, but did not mention the casualties.