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Gas leaking again at chemical plant in India that killed 11, sickened hundreds

Toxic gas began leaking again from an LG chemical plant in southern India's Vishakhapatnam early on Friday, an official said, triggering a wider evacuation after at least 11 people were killed following a leak from the site in the wee hours of Thursday.

Cause of gas leak at Vishakhapatnam plant owned by South Korea's LG conglomerate unclear

A boy affected by a chemical gas leak is carried for medical treatment in Vishakhapatnam, India. Chemical gas leaked from an industrial plant in southern India early Thursday, leaving people struggling to breathe and collapsing in the streets as they tried to flee. (The Associated Press)

Toxic gas began leaking again from an LG chemical plant in southern India's Vishakhapatnam early on Friday, an official said, triggering a wider evacuation after at least 11 people were killed following a leak from the site in the wee hours of Thursday.

"The situation is tense," district fire officer N. Surendra Anand told Reuters, adding people in a five-kilometre radius of the factory were being moved out.

Only hours earlier, authorities had said that the situation was under control at the plant on the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam, where the initial leak yesterday left people struggling to breathe and collapsing in the streets as they tried to flee. About 1,000 suffered breathing difficulties and other problems.

Administrator Vinay Chand said several people fainted Thursday on the road and were rushed to a hospital in Vishakhapatnam, in Andhra Pradesh state. The dead included an eight-year-old girl.

The synthetic chemical styrene leaked from the LG Polymers plant, which workers were preparing to restart after it was closed during the coronavirus lockdown, Chand said. The gas leaked after a fire broke out, and was extinguished.

Nearly 1,000 people in an area of three kilometres complained of breathing difficulties and a burning sensation in their eyes, he said.

About 100 people were hospitalized and in non-life-threatening condition, Police Commissioner R.K. Meena said.

S.N. Pradhan, head of the National Disaster Response Force, said 11 people had died.

Meena said one person died after falling into a well while running away, and another person died after jumping from the second storey of his house to escape. The others died in hospital.

LG co-operating with local authorities

State Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said rescuers broke open the doors of village homes that were locked from the inside and found people who had collapsed and transported them to a hospital.

South Korean company LG Chem Ltd. operates the plant. It says it is South Korea's largest chemical company and is part of the LG Corp. conglomerate.

The company said it is co-operating with Indian authorities to help residents and employees.

Nearly 1,000 people in an area of three kilometres complained of breathing difficulties and a burning sensation in their eyes, said administrator Vinay Chand. (The Associated Press)

It is looking into the cause of the leak of styrene monomer gas, which is used to produce plastic, but won't know exactly until Indian authorities complete their investigation, company official Song Chun-seob said.

'People felt breathless in their homes'

The Vishakhapatnam plant is a leading manufacturer of polystyrene plastic in India. It employs around 300 workers.

Mekapati Goutham Sawang, the state director-general of police, said styrene gas "is not a poisonous or a lethal gas."

"Only if one inhales high doses of it, it is serious. Otherwise, it leads to irritation, losing coherence and breathlessness," he said.

Meena said about 3,000 people were evacuated Thursday from a village near the plant.

Images from television showed people lying in the streets after they collapsed while trying to flee.

An eyewitness said there was total panic as a mist-like gas enveloped the area. "People felt breathless in their homes and tried to run away. Darkness added to the confusion," he told a television channel. His name wasn't given by the channel.

Srijana Gummala, the local municipal commissioner, said water is being sprayed in the area to minimize the impact of the gas. "Through public address system, the people are being asked to use wet masks," he said.

India imposed a strict, nationwide lockdown on March 25 to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Measures were eased on Monday, allowing neighbourhood shops and manufacturing units to reopen to resume economic activity.

India has so far reported nearly 50,000 virus cases with 14,183 recovered, and 1,694 deaths.

With files from Reuters