The long queue of 18-wheeler trucks on Napier Mole road was the first giveaway that something was amiss.
The traffic jam, stretching for almost three kilometres along the major thoroughfare that connects the KPT Interchange to the Karachi Port, had left scores of vehicles stranded for hours on Tuesday afternoon.
Up ahead at Jackson Market, the source of the bottleneck was apparent. Dozens of men gathered around a parked truck, standing on top of which half-a-dozen men rallied the crowd with slogans against the government, port authorities and health officials.
“Ali Zaidi must resign,” the man holding the mic shouted amid cheers from the crowd. “In European countries, ministers resign even when there is a minor incident on their watch. Here, 11 people have died and no one wants to assume responsibility.”
The protesters were referring to the 11 people who died in less than 48 hours after inhaling a toxic gas that first spread through the area on Sunday night. As the residents continued their protest, the figure jumped to 14 with another 400 persons treated and discharged from various hospitals.
“We demand answers!” shouted the man into the mic. “We want the government to explain where this gas came from.”
The majority of the shops at Jackson Market were shuttered but people still strolled about, giving the impression that they expected them to open soon. Some wore surgical masks, others hid behind cloth masks. Most had neither.
Young children in school uniforms roamed in groups of fours and fives as slightly older boys whizzed past on motorcycles. None appeared to have any protection for their sinuses.
A five-minute motorcycle ride away, the RG Railway Colony almost wore a deserted look. The colony largely comprises single-storey lodges for Railways employees and their families and is located right adjacent to the railway tracks.
Here, Ayaz Khan, a Railways employee and a resident of the colony explained why most people weren’t wearing masks. “They have become expensive overnight,” he exclaimed, pulling out a surgical mask from his pocket.
“I bought this for Rs70 when I think it only costs Rs5,” he said, adding that as soon as news of the toxic gas spread, shopkeepers had started profiteering off whatever supply of masks they could get their hands on.
The RG Railway Colony has also witnessed two fatalities due to the toxic gas. Many others were knocked unconscious and had to be rushed to the hospital, said Khan.
Most families have now shifted to their relatives’ houses, with only one family member per household staying behind to take care of their possessions.
“My daughter is so scared. She keeps crying and asking me to leave but where can we go?” he questioned incredulously. “The chief minister orders us to evacuate but no one has made any arrangements for us,” he said, referring to the chief minister’s directives on Monday night for the evacuation of residents to safer locations.
The next day, however, evacuation hadn't taken place. When Dawn reached out to the CM House for comment, spokesperson Rasheed Channa said that the decision to evacuate or not would be made in a meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Fear of the night
According to Ayaz, it becomes unbearable to breathe in the area after around 8:30pm. “It’s like the area is enveloped in a fog and breathing becomes so painful. There is a burning sensation and your eyes go watery but it’s the breathing that’s most painful,” he explained. “It is all so sudden that the 23-year-old woman who died just fell unconscious and didn’t even make it to the hospital hardly a kilometer away.”
The Ziauddin Hospital Keamari, where the majority of the affected persons have been taken, is hardly a two-minute drive from the colony.
At Keamari No. 1, Rashid Khan, who runs a corner shop in front of the Karachi Port’s gate number 1, shared a similar story. “Last night, a dense fog kind of descended upon the area. We just couldn’t breathe,” he said, adding that several people in the area had fallen sick.
Residents await answers
More than 48 hours since the gas leak, there was still no official confirmation on the cause of the toxic gas. The response to the incident has been haphazard at best, with a lack of coordination among the various agencies involved.
The International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) in a report to the government noted that the breathing problems could be the result of “exposure to soybean dust (aeroallergens)".
When reached for comment, Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani said that the ship transporting soybeans had been shifted from the KPT terminal. He added that they had taken all precautionary measures in collaboration with the health department and other relevant institutions to safeguard residents of the affected areas.
Back at the protest site, the demonstrators said they would not leave until they have answers from the authorities. They eventually dispersed just before the sun set, as the few shops that had remained open during the day pulled down their shutters to brace for the night.
Header image: Paramedics shift a patient on a stretcher into a hospital in Karachi on February 18. — AFP
With additional input by Imtiaz Ali