Freak accident’, gas leak, nearly 100 dead in 2 yrs — but no lessons learnt

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Around 6 pm on June 12, 53-year-old N K Katariya, a deputy general manager at Bhilai Steel plant and a father of two, was getting into his car for a short drive home when he saw his colleague B K Singh. Like Katariya, Singh, another DGM at the water supply department of the steel plant, was winding up work that evening when he was informed about a rupture on the main header pipe of the plant’s pump house, which supplied water to the gas cleaning plant of the blast furnaces.
Katariya dropped his bag and joined Singh in rushing across, as any flooding would endanger the blast furnaces and may force a shutdown at the steel plant, a flagship unit of state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL). The two managers were joined by half a dozen other employees.
At the pump house, the team was oblivious to early indication of trouble — pigeons were falling in droves from their perches above the facility. As the water supply to the gas cleaning plant had been stopped to prevent flooding, there was a sudden drop in pressure, forcing gas from the blast furnace scrubbers to enter the pipeline. When the pipeline ruptured, there was a surge of a deadly cocktail of methane and the colourless and odourless carbon monoxide. In a matter of minutes, the team working on the line started dropping one by one.
The leakage of carbon monoxide at the plant affected 36 people, of which five, including Katariya and Singh, died during treatment, while the body of Vikas Verma — a 24-year-old contract worker — was found 30 feet down in the pump site after the water was drained.
The casualties could have been higher, had it not been for a fortuitous event. Durg Collector R Shangeetha, who was just 12 days into her job when the accident happened, told The Indian Express that there was a CISF mock drill happening near the plant around the time of the accident, so the jawans managed to carry the 36 people in time to the hospital. You can click here for more information.
SAIL described it as a “freak accident”, the first such event in 50 years. But hardly any lessons seem to have been learnt by India’s flagship firms. Just three days later, on June 16, two engineers of a private firm — SMS Seimag India Ltd — died of suspected gas leak at the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant, a unit of state-owned steel company Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd (RINL). Preliminary reports attributed the reason to suspected carbon monoxide poisoning.
In fact, if just the steel sector were to be considered, across the two flagship state-owned steel firms — SAIL and RINL — nearly 100 workmen have died in a series of accidents in the two-year period till July 2014. The biggest single event was in June 2012, when over a dozen employees, including some senior executives, died at an accident in RINL’s Visakhapatnam plant.

An anchor with CNBC TV18 for almost 4 years. Also co-anchors prime-time market shows like Power Breakfast, Traders only, Markets Mid-day and NSE Closing Bell.