Eight people were killed and over 100 affected after a toxic gas leak in Karachi’s Keamari Sunday night, health authorities said.
The Sindh Health Department confirmed the 7th death from the gas leak late Monday. Another man died later at the KPT Hospital.
Ten people were admitted to the Jinnah Hospital’s emergency ward Monday evening, according to Dr Seemin Jamali. Around 60 people are believed to be currently under treatment at the Ziauddin Hospital.
Federal Maritime Minister Ali Zaidi had earlier confirmed six deaths. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah took notice of the incident and ordered free medical treatment of everyone affected.
The patients were taken to Ziauddin Hospital, Kutiyana Memon, Jinnah, and Civil. The vice-chairman of the union council in Keamari had said the nearby smaller hospital didn’t have the capacity to treat all those affected.
Around 100 patients were brought to Ziauddin Hospital Sunday night and most were given first aid and discharged. Everyone admitted had difficulty breathing and stomach pain and were given oxygen immediately, the hospital told SAMAA Digital.
There were four casualties at Ziauddin and four other people were admitted to the ICU because of severe breathing difficulties. One of them has been put on the ventilator.
Sindh Health Secretary Zahid Ali Abbasi toured Ziauddin Hospital, Keamari Monday morning.
A total of 125 patients had been brought to Ziauddin Hospital Keamari since Sunday night. Early Monday, 11 new patients were brought in, including three children between the ages of three and 10.
Dr Asim Hussain, the head of the hospital, also ordered free treatment of all the gas leak affectees, according to the Ziauddin Hospital spokesperson.
Civil Hospital received seven patients and all were stable and had been discharged, according to hospital representative Khadim Rizvi.
The patients brought to Civil Hospital were one 16-year-old boy, one 17-year-old girl, a 40-year-old woman, a 16-year-old girl, two 18-year-old men and a 22-year-old man.
The deputy commissioner had been told to clear the area of gas but residents were still being advised to wear masks. The health department had sent teams to the area to tell people to wear masks and keep their doors and windows closed.
The authorities are still investigating what the gas was.
If there was any leak of poisonous gas from a ship, we would have had casualties on the docks or from the crew, but that is not the case.
Therefore, as repeatedly requested last night, please stop spreading & believing in rumors.
Once we have the report, we will inform all.
— Ali Haider Zaidi (@AliHZaidiPTI) February 17, 2020
Despite earlier saying a ship full of chemicals had anchored at the port, Zaidi later denied any leaks from ships.
The Karachi Port Trust Chairperson Rear Admiral (retd) Jamil Akhtar denied that poisonous gas was released into the air from ships docked at the port.
Ships are still docking and leaving the port, he said while addressing a press conference, adding that no ship arrived at the port that could have released this gas.
He clarified that media reports suggested that the gas leak was caused by a ship called NV-Hercules. “Let me tell you that the ship was carrying soybeans and it came from the US. If you don’t trust the laws in Pakistan, then be assured that the ship met the requirements set by the US.”
If there was any gas or chemical leakage at the port, then the affectees would be the people working there and we are here in front of you, he added. “People don’t know about cargo handling because of which such rumours are being spread.”
The Pakistan Navy is investigating the matter, he said, adding that it has collected samples from the port. A biological and chemical damage control team from the navy is also looking into the situation.
A SEPA official told SAMAA Digital they have inspected the ports where cargo comes in and other areas but have not found anything conclusive. We have speculations the same as you do, he said.
He said the effects are being felt in the areas of Keamari, Railway Colony and Jackson Town.
We will know more after the patients’ blood tests reports come back, he said.
A KPT official explained to SAMAA Digital that they keep dangerous goods at the dangerous cargo shed in Berth 17. The gas leak occurred 10km away on Masan Road, he claimed.
No dangerous cargo was handled at the port Sunday night, said the official who revealed that they only handled concrete, bright, general cargo and DAP fertiliser.
The most affected area, he said, was Keamari Railway Colony, where the first two deaths were reported. There are multiple oil refineries in the area.
Schools, offices evacuated
Schools and offices located in the area were evacuated in the morning.
Keamari resident Sundus Rasheed, a radio show host at CityFM89, told SAMAA Digital that nearby residential areas have yet to be evacuated.
Offices located in West Wharf and nearby areas have been evacuated. “People from Dawn, GSK, and CityFM89 have been asked to go home. People in Keamari are honestly a bit lost. They’re sitting in their houses wearing masks, not sure what to do.”
There’s a lot of speculation going on but we still don’t know what exactly happened, she added.
The Karachi Boat Club temporarily closed the club following the reports of a gas leak as a “precautionary measure”, it said in a statement. The club was closed at 5pm and it will reopen Tuesday morning.
Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani said they have controlled the situation in Keamari. Speaking to SAMAA TV on its programme Naya Din Monday morning, he said the number of people coming in with toxic gas-related complaints has decreased. Many have received treatment and been discharged from the hospital, he said.
The face mask issue has been resolved, he said, explaining that the fire brigade had supplied masks.
Panic in Jackson market
There was both panic and a distinct lack of concern in Keamari on Monday afternoon. The streets were far from full but shops were open and people were walking around in Jackson Market, Keamari and Railway Colony.
The proportion of people who wore green surgical masks was far less than expected, especially considering the health department says it handed out masks in the area.
“No one gave us anything,” said Anwar, a 48-year-old driver who lives in Jackson. He told SAMAA Digital that he bought the mask last night from Teen Talwar for Rs15, which is three times what it usually costs. He first went to the local market and then to Jinnah hospital where he was told they had run out of masks. Others said they had bought the masks for up to Rs20.
In Jackson, everyone heard about the toxic gas and people who died or were affected but no one seemed to know them, an oddity in such a small neighbourhood.
Anwar and a group of other men all complained of sore throats, difficulty breathing and watering eyes. “It’s much better now,” he said. “Last night you could see white particles in the air.”
Kashif, who lives a few streets away in Railway Colony, next to the Shell Lubricant Oil Blending Plant, said his neighbourhood was the most affected. Two women died here, he said, indicating to a narrow lane.
One was a 22-year-old and the other was over 50. Twelve to 13 people were taken to the hospital where, after first aid they were sent to Civil Hospital and then brought back home, he said. Twenty feet behind him a funeral was being held for one of the victims. The other’s body was taken to Rawalpindi Sunday night to be buried.
Many people have left the area, said Kashif. Some went to their relatives’ houses elsewhere in Karachi and others who were from Sindh left the city. There are about 700 people living in Railway Colony.
“When the first death occurred, no one knew what was going on. When the second death occurred within 20 to 25 minutes everyone began to worry.” He said people found it difficult to stand and were plagued by headaches.
It was a strange feeling, he said. Officials who came to the area with a machine to check the air also found it difficult to stay for more than 10 minutes, he said.
The local mosque made an announcement, urging people to close their windows and doors. It also told people who felt sick to visit the local Railways dispensary.
The doctor there said he had nebulised four people so far. But most if not all of his patients had known cases of asthma or breathing problems. He has been prescribing a broncho dilator, paracetamol and anti-allergy medication. Some people have been complaining of watering eyes and itching, he said.
Women who came to the dispensary said it was very difficult to breathe last night. We have shut our doors and windows and turned the fans on full, said one woman. She said four women from the neighbourhood had died and she was related to two of them.
She was sitting with us just last night and five minutes after she left we heard she had died, she said of the 22-year-old victim.
I brought my children here for a checkup, said the woman. But the dispensary didn’t have an X-ray machine or the tools needed to perform a lung function test.
Another woman had come to get ‘oxygen’ because it was difficult to breathe. But when the doctor nebulised her, she found it even more difficult. She was prescribed a broncho dilator and paracetamol.
We have been educating people, said the doctor. They must wash their eyes and hands, he said, and not expose themselves to this air.
He didn’t believe that the toxic gas was still in the air and wasn’t wearing a mask either. The dispensary was giving out surgical masks “as a precaution”, he said, despite the fact that these masks do little to protect people’s lungs.
The Pakistan Railways has set up an emergency cell for 14 hours, he said. No patients were taken to or treated at the Pakistan Railways Hospital in Keamari. Next door at Ziauddin Hospital there were no free beds.
The story was last updated at 11:30pm. With additional reporting by Siham Basir and Tooba Masood.