Toxic gas leak: Distressed Karachi residents demand explanation as govt remains clueless

Updated February 18, 2020

Email

Residents protest government's silence in Jackson Market. — Photo by Shahzeb Ahmed
Residents protest government's silence in Jackson Market. — Photo by Shahzeb Ahmed

A protest was held on Tuesday in Karachi's Jackson Market area by angry residents who demanded an explanation from authorities regarding the leakage of lethal gas, which has so far claimed at least 14 lives.

The demonstrators also demanded the resignation of Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Zaidi.

A photo posted by Instagram (@instagram) on

Earlier, Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani had said that a ship that was offloading soybean or a similar substance could be the probable cause of the toxic gas. Zaidi, however, had termed Shallwani's statement as "absolute rubbish". Karachi Port Trust (KPT) chairman Jamil Akhter had also denied that the port was the source of the gas.

On Tuesday afternoon, most of the shops in Jackson Market were closed but the marketplace was flooded with people, some of whom were wearing surgical masks or had wrapped a cloth around their faces.

The protest resulted in a massive traffic jam on Napier Mole Road — the main artery connecting the KPT interchange to the port, via Jackson Market.

Initial reports

Authorities were alerted to the situation when people in the Keamari area began rushing to nearby hospitals with severe breathing problems on Sunday night. The concerned authorities were not sure about the exact cause of the incident.

The next day, on Monday, Shallwani had informed a Sindh cabinet 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 had reasoned.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had ordered authorities to evacuate people from affected areas last night.

'Couldn't breathe'

Rashid Khan, who runs a shop near the Keamari port, told Dawn.com that the toxic gas caused a "burning sensation in the nose", watery eyes and breathing difficulties.

"Last night, there was a kind of fog that enveloped the area and we couldn’t breathe," he said, adding that there was no smell.

Rashid's remarks contradict claims by Zaidi, who insists that "it's business as usual" at the port's harbour.

Similar symptoms were being experienced by the residents of Railway Colony, where two women have died due to the toxic effects of the gas. One of the victims, a 23-year-old woman, had collapsed after inhaling the gas and passed away by the time she was taken to the hospital, which is located hardly a kilometre away.

Many residents have shifted to their relatives' homes, Dawn.com found out.

Ayaz Khan, a Railways employee who lives in the RG Railway Colony, said that the gas caused itching in the throat, watery eyes and breathing difficulties.

According to Ayaz, the leakage of the toxic gas starts around 8:30-9pm, prompting area mosques to urge residents to keep their doors and windows shut, in special announcements during the evening.

Cause of leakage

Meanwhile, Faisal Edhi, the head of the Edhi Foundation, told Dawn.com that at least four people were reported to have fallen unconscious after inhaling the gas in the KPT area. He added that the highest number of cases had been reported from Katchi Para and RG Railway Colony areas.

At least 400 people have been affected by the toxic gas by now, said Edhi.

He added that several people, who had respiratory diseases, had been shifted to the hospital from Karachi's Clifton area as well as they had fallen ill after inhaling the gas. Doctors, however, could not confirm the veracity of Edhi's statement.

"If cases continue to emerge tonight, it would mean that the source of the gas is something else, not the soybean shipment," Edhi said, while commenting on a possible source of the lethal gas.

Meanwhile, a Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) official, who asked not to named, said that initial observation suggested the reagent could be hydrogen sulphide. He added, however, that this would only be confirmed once the reports were received in 10 days.

Asked whether the symptoms being reported by the victims were in line with their assessment of the reagent, the Sepa official said that some of the symptoms were similar.