“What triggered this was seeing so many people crying for their remaining family members... and people desperately drinking water from borewells."
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At least 11 lives were lost and thousands of others fell ill due to a gas leak in the early hours of 7 May 2020 at a polymers plant in Visakhapatnam (Vizag). For Pedametla Pradeep Kumar, a civil engineer working in the office of a village sarpanch (sachivalayam), it was a lucky escape.
The IIT alumnus lives in the Pendurthi city, 7 km from the LG polymers plant in Vizag. At 5 AM yesterday, he got a panicked call from a friend inquiring about his well-being following the gas leak. Fortunately, Pradeep was in Rongali Naidu Palem, his home village – 34 km from the disaster site.
“My friend informed me about the tragedy and sensing that people might require assistance, I armoured myself with goggles and masks and rushed to the spot. I saw a number of people escaping to a safer place. Some even stopped to inform me about the gas leak before running away again,” shares the 25-year-old who along with his friends, provided refreshments to about 1000 people, food to 400 and shelter for the night to 70.
The IIT Grad at Checkpoint Duty:
After getting his degree from IIT Madras, Pradeep took up a job as a Civil Engineer in Mumbai. But the desire to do something for the needy pushed him to resign and he formed WeHelp – an organisation that gives free tuition to the underprivileged students in Vizag. He also began taking up assignments in government agencies and currently, he works as an Engineering Assistant in the grama sachivalayam office in Mogalipuram, Andhra Pradesh.
“Following the COVID-19 lockdown, I was given a checkpoint duty. From 7 AM to 11 AM, I stand at the post, checking every vehicle that enters or leaves the village. I have to scan if people are roaming around without reason and impose a fine or restrict them. When I resumed my duty after visiting Vizag on 7th May, I was instructed to relax the scanning process a bit. I was to let everyone enter and warn people leaving the village about the tragedy,” Pradeep tells TBI.
That day, he stayed a little longer after his duty. By 11.30 AM, something was clearly off. A strange smell had permeated the air and Pradeep and other staff members started feeling uneasy, suffocated even. He immediately rang up the Mandal Parishad Development Officer (MPDO) informing about this peculiar occurrence.
“The officials instructed us to communicate to all the village level volunteers to alert villagers to stay at home and take a few necessary precautions. I could clearly see how bad the situation was getting. Convincing myself that the villagers are informed and safe, I left the village to escape from the gas,” the IIT-ian shares.
About 15 kilometres into the journey and guilt stopped Pradeep. He could have done something more for the villagers and for the people escaping from Vizag. In no time, he turned back.
An Escape from the Tragedy, a Safe Shelter:
By early morning, Vizag residents had grasped the gravity of the situation. Many had started escaping in cars, on bikes and even on foot to various neighbouring villages. Mogalipuram was one such village that received hundreds of people. “What triggered me was seeing so many people crying for their family members and people drinking water near borewells. So I was determined and took the decision to help in whatever capacity I can. I went to nearby village shops and purchased everything – water, buttermilk etc and started distributing to everyone who was stranded on the roadside and others who didn’t know what to do and in a state of absolute panic,” says Pradeep.
He started around 12 noon and before he knew it, had distributed 100 packets of buttermilk, 250 bottles of lemon water, 250 boxes of orange juice and 200 bottles of almond milk. “I was spending my own money. But after purchasing refreshments worth around Rs 15,000, I had exhausted my resources. Then I started calling up my friends in the villages, asking for their assistance. I wasn’t alone anymore,” he shares.
Anil Kumar, an Assistant Professor at the Baba Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Vizag and the co-founder of WeHelp was there too. “I was near the location when I came to know about this situation. I could see many victims coming out of their houses and closed places to try and escape. They had no drinking water. So we started buying fruit juices and water for them. In the afternoon we arranged for food too.”
Residents of Mogalipuram pitched in by serving meals to the hungry. By 8 pm, the situation seemed under control and Pradeep returned home to Rongali Naidu Palem. Many of those who escaped the tragedy moved on to their hometowns during the day.
The Vizag Nightmare was Far From Over:
Around 1.30 am, there was another situation of absolute panic. Anil got a call informing about people running helter-skelter. “I suspect a rumour about another gas leak had catalysed this panic. I immediately arranged for a college bus to carry the people to the BITS premises. We made other necessary arrangements.”
Finally, toddlers, youngsters and senior citizens could all stay safe during the night of uncertainty and panic. “We provided them with beds for the night and milk and breakfast in the morning. I resumed my duty after that,” Pradeep shares.
Of course, there were several more volunteers helping out Pradeep and Anil in this operation. Without their timely coordination, generous help and selfless support, these families may not have found refuge in sure dire times.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)