CM orders evacuation as death toll from toxic gas in Karachi's Keamari area rises to 7

Updated 18 Feb 2020

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Security personnel wearing facemasks stand outside an hospital entrance in Karachi on February 17. — AFP
Security personnel wearing facemasks stand outside an hospital entrance in Karachi on February 17. — AFP

As the death toll from the toxic gas that spread in Karachi's Keamari area went up to seven, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah ordered the evacuation of residents from the affected areas.

The death toll increased from five to seven late Monday after two more people inhaled the gas, the nature of which has yet to be ascertained by the authorities. Over 150 others complaining of breathing difficulties have been rushed to the hospital over the last 24 hours.

The CM's directives came in an emergency meeting at the CM House on Monday night after he visited the affected areas, according to CM House spokesperson, Rasheed Channa.

During the meeting, the CM said that it was unfortunate that the smell of the toxic gas was not receding and that people were still falling sick because of it.

"The smell is spreading with the wind," said the CM, while issuing directives to shift residents of the affected areas to marriage halls located in the nearest safe area.

Prime Minister Imran Khan also expressed grief over the loss of precious lives in the incident.

In a related development, the Sindh cabinet, according to TV reports, postponed its meeting scheduled for Tuesday, apparently to pay undivided attention to the issue. The cabinet will now meet on Wednesday.

Death toll rises

Jackson police said that two persons died on Monday due to "toxic/lethal gases", which emitted again in Keamari area on Monday evening, bringing the death toll to seven after the demise of five people on Sunday night.

The police said that numerous persons were also affected, became unconscious and suffered breathing problems. They were taken to Ziauddin hospital in Clifton and other hospitals for medical treatment.

Edhi Foundation spokesperson identified one of the two deceased as Imran Ashraf, 30, while another was unknown aged around 50 years.

Possible cause

Meanwhile, Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani informed the meeting that a ship that was offloading soybean or a similar substance could be the probable cause of the toxic gas. "When offloading from this ship is halted, the smell too diminishes," he reasoned.

At this, the CM directed to check the particular container on the ship. The commissioner responded that offloading from the ship had already been stopped.

An initial investigation into the incident by Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) on Monday showed that a toxic gas had leaked from the terminal/s storing crude oil and petroleum products located within the residential areas.

"Today, our team has carried out a detailed inspection of the affected residential areas in Keamari and found that they all are surrounded by several storage units meant to keep imported crude oil and petroleum products," said Sepa director general Naeem Mughal.

He added that companies periodically carried out repair and maintenance of their units and it was likely that a toxic gas leaked during such a process.

The team, he said, also interviewed the families whose loved ones either died in the incident or received medical treatment.

"The families which suffered immediate casualties had their houses located just adjacent to a storage unit in Railway Colony. The department, however, would be able to share conclusive findings in a day or two after examining the samples it has collected from various affected places and hearing out representatives of the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) and companies maintaining their units in residential areas," Mughal said, adding that these samples included air quality samples.

Other areas which the team visited were Jackson and Shireen Jinnah Colony.

'Mysterious' gas

Authorities were alerted to the incident when people in the Keamari area began rushing to nearby hospitals with severe breathing problems on Sunday night.

Since the bodies were not brought to any government hospital, the exact causes of the deaths have not yet been ascertained, police surgeon Dr Qarar Ahmed Abbasi said.

At least 135 people were brought to Dr Ziauddin Hospital, while 10 patients were brought to Kutiyana Memon Hospital, most of whom were discharged after first aid. According to Dr Seemin Jamali, executive director at Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Centre, the hospital received three patients, two of whom have been discharged while one is still admitted at the hospital.

Dr Ziauddin Hospital spokesperson Amir Shehzad said they were currently treating 10 patients including seven males and three females.

He added that people with pre-existing respiratory problems were more severely affected.

Deputy Inspector General (DIG) South Sharjeel Kharal told Dawn that they have decided to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) of the incident against unknown persons on behalf of the state.

The DIG also said that police are further investigating the incident, while a team comprising officials of KPT, Pakistan Navy, West Deputy Commissioner's office and the health department was being sent to the affected area.

The Karachi Port Trust (KPT) hospital in Keamari is providing treatment for all individuals affected by the incident and KPT rescue and support teams are providing full support to the victims.

Addressing a press conference earlier on Monday, KPT Chairman Jamil Akhtar said they had found "no gas leakage" after checking all terminals at the port.

He said there was no truth to reports on social media that the gas had leaked from the KPT.

He added that work was underway at the KPT as per normal, and that "all berths at the port can be inspected" for the leakage.

According to Akhtar, the Pakistan Navy has taken some samples and their report will be issued soon.