Seven miles. One for each failure

I wasn’t sure how to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy. I knew I should run. After all this is a blog about running and I’m running the London Marathon for the Bhopal Medical Appeal. But how can running be associated with a tragedy of this scale. I considered linking my distance to the anniversary but 32 miles or even 32 kilometres is well above what I should be running at this stage and I’d risk injury over such distances. It also felt trite to link my run to the loss of life. Not only is the real extent of loss disputed or largely unknown but, even by conservative estimates, it is huge and running a few miles on a Friday morning is hardly an adequate means to contemplate this.

In the end I decided to run seven miles. One for each significant failure on the night, any of which, if rectified, might have saved thousands of lives. There were actually many more than seven failures. In the lead up to the tragedy there were many clear warning signs that can be dated back to years before the event itself. But on the night of the 2nd/3rd December 1984 I established seven things and I decided to run a mile for each of them. Seven miles is also a good distance – it takes me out of my five mile comfort zone but is less than the more gruelling longer distances I’ll be running as my training picks up in the New Year.

For each new mile I considered a new failure. Not only did this feel like a suitable act of remembrance but it is also a useful tool for distance running. Running can really free up the mind and allow you to focus on other things, but during bad miles there is a need pin your thoughts onto something specific to distract you from fatigue. So having one thing to focus on for each mile is good practice for longer distances.

And what were the seven failings I thought about?

Well for the first mile I considered pressure. A failure that predates the night of the 2nd/3rd December itself was that Union Carbide had knowingly put 42 tonnes of deadly MIC into a storage tank that safety standards typically dictate should only contain 30 tonnes. But despite this knowledge, when pressure in the tank increased five-fold between 10.30pm and 11pm staff put the increase down to an equipment malfunction and chose to ignore it. What struck me as I ran was not the error itself but the unwitting testimony it reflects. So much of the equipment in the factory was in decay and safety standards were so routinely ignored that this one, significant, case of human error was deemed normal in the working culture of the factory.

For the second mile I considered what seems like an even more absurd failure. At 11.30pm staff were feeling the effects of exposure and a leak was discovered within 15 minutes. So what did they do? They postponed any decision to act until after they’d had a scheduled twenty minute tea break at 12.15am. Even without the benefit of hindsight the decision to discuss an ongoing leak of deadly toxins over a cup of chai seems utterly bizarre and negligent, equivalent to the Roman Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Except Bhopal wasn’t burning, yet. When the tea break began there might have been time to at least mitigate the situation, but by the time the tea break was finished it was too late. Within 5 minutes the situation was critical, pressure within the tank had reached peaks of over twenty times the normal level and atmospheric venting had begun.

During the third fourth and fifth miles I considered each piece of abandoned safety equipment which, if in use, might have saved lives. Mile three for the refrigeration unit that had been out of service for nearly three years and whose high temperature alarm had been disabled. Mile four for the disconnected flare tower that might have burned off some of the toxins before they reached the atmosphere. Mile five for the gas scrubber which had been left in standby mode. Contemplating these on a run when my mind is clear of other thoughts really brings home two points. Firstly how preventable this tragedy was. If any of the safety measures had been applied, even crudely, then fewer lives would have been lost. If safety measures had been strictly applied then I would not be writing this. But deeper than that what occurred to me was how cultural this disregard had become. The Union Carbide plant was only 15 years old, the MIC facility was only five years old, but already both felt abandoned. Faulty equipment wasn’t being repaired or replaced, production was being run down, plans were being discussed to dismantle the whole factory and move it to Brazil or Indonesia.

People don’t go out of their way to endanger lives, especially their own, but it feels like, in the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, there was an almost fatalistic resignation. This wasn’t just like fiddling while Rome burned it was like dousing Rome in petrol and throwing lit matches around.

For the final two miles my legs were getting tired but the last two failings energised me because they are the ones that make me angriest about the tragedy. Both involve actively withholding information that could have saved lives. For mile six I considered the alarm sirens. There were two: One to alert workers in the factory and one to alert the local population. While the factory siren was allowed to sound the other one was disconnected to prevent the leak from causing panic. Given that 40 tonnes of deadly gas had just been released into the atmosphere refusing to sound the alarm for fear of fomenting panic is beyond negligent. An alarm was finally sounded an hour and a half later, when the gas release had been completed.

For the final mile there were the denials and misinformation that came from Union Carbide between 1am and 2.15 am, with staff telling police that there was no problem, then that they didn’t know what was happening before finally admitting that a leak had happened but claiming that it had been plugged.

There were many more errors and failings that contributed to this disaster and its aftermath but those that took place in the crucial period surrounding the gas leak between 10.30pm and 2.15am on the night of the 2nd/3rd of December 1984 are the ones that resonate with me the most. Even failing and neglected safety equipment was issuing warning after warning but all of these were ignored and the human cost of such failures continues to make itself felt 32 years later.

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