The Safest Plant in Texas Blows Up and I Go to Bhopal

Two weeks before oyster season ended, I woke after midnight and walked to my bedroom window and there in the square of my window, Union Carbide filled the sky and shook the house. There were three explosions. Three fires. I thought I was dreaming but I wasn’t. It was the real thing. The Safest Plant in Texas was burning. 
Union Carbide, the chemical plant outside of Seadrift and my bedroom window, had just been named THE SAFEST PLANT IN TEXAS by the Texas Chemical Council who loved to say things like that, put out a press release on it, and then have it stare back in a newspaper at them. But here the safest plant had just blown up and blasted Union Carbide’s new safety award off the wall, nearly killing a worker. 
As explosions go, it was a pretty good one. If the explosion had happened at six in the morning instead of the wee hours like it had, there would have been six hundred workers injured instead of the thirty-two– with one worker dead. Lucky lucky Union Carbide and lucky lucky Seadrift, because a hundred and fifty feet from the blast and taking a hit was an ethylene oxide tank that stored the equivalent of 58 tons of TNT. As it was, the oxide tank didn’t explode and neither did Seadrift but shrapnel as huge as a Cadillac was hurled across the highway and into the surrounding marshland and workers on the edge of the blast climbed an eight-foot chain link fence and ran all the way to Seadrift. Two weeks later, Union Carbide’s lawyers went to every neighbor within shooting distance, including a neighbor whose puppies were turning up blind and with missing limbs, and bought them all out. 
A week later I got a visit from a professor named Ward Morehouse from New York City. How he found me I have no earthly idea because I’m not an easy person to find. Anyhow, Ward showed up at my door looking exactly like a corporate executive from the tip-top of his luxurious silver hair all the way down to his white shirt, black pants, black shoes, and the dozens of rubber bands that he wore around his wrist for no reason I could fathom and I was a little suspicious that Union Carbide had come to buy me out. But nope, Ward wasn’t a corporate lawyer. He was Union Carbide’s worst nightmare.
“Do you want to go to Bhopal, India?” he asked and I, having no earthly idea what he was talking about, hesitated for six seconds before I said, “Why, shore. “ Two weeks later I hopped a plane to India and learned something besides the obvious one that flying to India was a lot like camping out. 
I arrived in India eight years after a very bad day. The day was December 4, 1984 and in the very early morning hours, a thin white vapor from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant caught the wind and blew across the road into the jam-packed houses with ill-fitting windows and doors. Those who woke that night said they felt fire in their eyes, noses and throats. Many thought somebody was burning chilies over a fire. There were sudden shouts of run run, but instead of running, the people twisted in pain. Some ran with whatever they were wearing. Some had nothing on at all, but still they ran. Some fell and were never picked up. Others fell and were trampled by other people. Even cows were running. 
People died in horrible ways because the gas attacked their eyes and lungs and central nervous system. They lost control of their body and feces and urine ran down their legs. Some vomited, went into convulsions, and died. Some choked to death on their own body fluids. Many were trampled to death in the stampede through the dark alleyways. Children’s hands were wrenched from their parent’s grasp and they, lost and alone and in agony, died. 
The ground was so thick with dead that the dead became a highway. The army dumped hundreds of bodies in the forests and the rivers, but then the rivers became so choked with bodies that they formed logjams against the bridges. Union Carbide said 3,800 people died. City workers, who picked up the bodies with their own hands, loading them onto trucks for mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, said at least 15,000 died. The Bhopal survivors, who based their numbers on the number of death shrouds sold in the city, claimed 8,000 died that first week. There were so many white death shrouds on the ground that it looked like snow. 
Bhopal was the scene of world’s worst environmental disaster and I had arrived in India without a full understanding of what I was doing there. Yes, I understood that there was a Union Carbide plant in my backyard and one in Bhopal’s back yard, but, surely, I could understand that just as easily in Texas where there was a Union Carbide plant in Texas City and one in Louisiana, too. Did I need a ticket to India? Maybe I was here to be a witness? I’d heard a hundred times about folks going to gravesites or fenced in and blocked out mortuaries of heinous crimes for the sole purpose of being a witness to the horror. Witnessing was a real legitimate reason for being somewhere. But there were two billion witnesses here already! And all much better at it then me!
The only thing I knew without a doubt—and minus India, minus Bhopal, and minus Ward Morehouse– was that something was going on. There was always some good reason for being where I was and hearing what I was hearing or seeing what I was seeing (remember, I was a borderline mystic and knew how to track shrimp) I just didn’t know what it was — but some day it would become crystal clear. At the moment, though, Bhopal was one huge puzzle with 2 billion teeny tiny pieces and I had exactly three– no, that’s an exaggeration– I had one piece. 
Permanent People’s tribunal on human rights and industrial hazards. That was it. Ward gave me the pamphlet and I looked at it and turned the thing over and read on the back that the tribunal was based on the idea that the world had ample experience of industrial and environmental hazards and lessons had to be learned from these experiences so that those who died and suffered didn’t do it in vain. In other words, learn from the past so that a better world was possible. The best part of it (I read) was that the Permanent People’s Tribunal was not a government or an official document; it was a people’s statement that came from their experience of being forced to live with the consequences of industrial hazards and it was very very fitting that the tribunal was talking place near the heart of industry’s greatest darkness: Bhopal, India.
Ward Morehouse, the Union Carbide nightmare professor who had engineered my flight to India, was involved up to his neck. Key example, among hundreds of witnesses from ten Asian countries, I was the lone American giving testimony on both Union Carbide and Formosa Plastics. Texas version, anyhow. Seriously, I knew there were at least a zillion other activists out there who could have been a much better choice (speaking better and certainly dressing better because I had lost my luggage somewhere over the Indian skies and I was dressed in an Indian man’s tunic that I had bought at a Bhopal bazaar and I was getting a lot of stares) but, oh well, Union Carbide had blown up in my back yard. 
Every morning all of us delegates hopped a dusty bus from a rambling hotel that resembled a drafty mausoleum and took a ride to an enormous beige conference center where huge black and white pictures of Gandhi hung on every wall and rioting bougainvillea spilled into the streets, up and down pathways, and over towering trellises. Between the heat, bougainvillea, chilies burning on the fire, and the wide- open skies I thought I was back in Texas. The governments were certainly alike.
Things changed on the sixth morning. Oh, we had our dusty ride on the crowded bus, all right, but that morning a tiny man in white shirt and shorts chased the bus down the road. He was hollering something with a high British accent and he was so close to the bus that it sounded like he was hollering right in my ear. I was taking it a little personal so I turned at the open bus window that was scoured with dirt and grime and a million fingerprints on the bottom half, but from the top half I could see him just fine. At that exact moment he decided to leap. For a second I thought he was going to bop me on the nose with his hand but instead, a knotted handkerchief flew through the window and hit me in the head. A white, neatly knotted handkerchief tumbled into my lap. I sat a moment, fingering the place on my head where the handkerchief had hit, and then I swung around to find that little man. Whyyy you little. The man was standing stock still in the middle of the dusty road and getting smaller by the second. I whirled around to see if anyone had noticed my brief moment with the jumping man. Did ya’ll see what he just did? Apparently not; it was just him and me in a brief one-on-one. So I unknotted the handkerchief, smoothed out the four corners, and then I flipped over what looked like a stack of photos. There were ten black and white photos of ten dead babies lying on white sheets smeared with blood. The babies were young. Very young. Maybe they were newborns. I looked closer. Did my babies look like that when they were born? Were they ever that small? Who were these babies and why were they so bloody? I looked around the bus and showed the pictures to a woman sitting next to me. There was a long silence. The woman turned her head and refused to look at the pictures. Finally, a man leaned across the seat from me and said that the night of the poison gas, women lost their unborn children as they ran. Their wombs spontaneously opened in bloody abortions. “These are those unborn babies,” he said. “They are the lucky ones. “ 
I found out soon enough who were the unlucky ones. They were sitting beside me in the conference center, sometimes filling the aisles and the hallways, and almost always, sitting on the steps when I went inside. They wore bandages and scarves around their heads and covering their eyes, but the ones with charred lungs and poisoned kidneys had no bandages. They simply pulled their shirts, scarves, and shawls tight around their bodies and resigned themselves to misery while, I supposed, the bureaucrats and corporate dogs fattened themselves on skullduggery and dirty deals. 

I didn’t leave India lightly because there was no forgetting those babies. I felt like I had been hit with a train or a passing car or one of those elephants I’d heard so much about but never saw. I’d sure think twice before catching a plane to India again. Maybe that old man in the white shirt and shorts had hit me in the head harder than I thought. I didn’t know for sure. All I knew was that those dead babies with their frail arms flung across the white sheets seemed a whole lot like my own sleeping babies in their cribs at night and when I got back to Texas, their tiny fists pounded me in my dreams and railed against me forgetting. And every night I got a beating from the bed sheets and that’s one day that I didn’t forget. It got so bad that I couldn’t walk into a grocery store or out into a hot parking lot and hearing a baby cry not instinctively turn towards the sound. I had to physically stop myself from approaching the mother and grabbing the baby from her arms. I’m surprised I wasn’t arrested a time or two. Somehow those cries gave a voice to the awful silence coming from the dead babies.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: