“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” – Christopher Reeve
Thirty two years ago, on the night of December 2, 1984, Bhopal was hit by a catastrophe that had no parallel in the world’s industrial history. An accident at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal had released almost 30 tons of a highly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate, turning the city into a vast gas chamber. The result was a nightmare; more than 600,000 people were exposed to the deadly gas cloud that left thousands dead and many more breathless, blind and in agonizing pain.
Few people know that during the Bhopal gas tragedy a heroic stationmaster risked his own life to save others.
This is the little known story of deputy station superintendent Ghulam Dastagir, an unsung hero without whom the casualties in the catastrophe would have been much higher.
On the evening of December 3, 1984, Ghulam Dastagir was settling down in his office to complete some pending paperwork. This work kept him in his office till 1 am in the night, when he emerged to check the arrival of the Gorakhpur Mumbai Express.
As he stepped on to the platform, the deputy stationmaster felt his eyes burn and a queer itching sensation in his throat.
He did not know that poisonous fumes leaking from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory were stealthily enveloping the railway station.
Beginning to choke, Dastagir did not know then that twenty three of his railway colleagues, including his boss, station superintendent Harish Dhurve, had already died. It was later reported that Dhurve had heard about the deadly gas and had immediately tried stopping the movement of trains passing through Bhopal before collapsing in his office chamber.
His suddenly worsening health and years of experience told Dastagir that something was very wrong. Though he did not fully comprehend what was happening, he decided to act immediately when he did not get any response from the station master. He alerted the senior staff at nearby stations, like Vidisha and Itarsi, to suspend all train traffic to Bhopal.
However, the jam-packed Gorakhpur-Kanpur Express was already standing on a platform and its departure time was 20 minutes away. Listening to his gut instinct, Dastagir summoned his staff and told them to immediately clear the train for departure. When they asked if they should wait until the order to do so came from the head office, Dastagir replied that he would take complete responsibility for the train’s early departure. He wanted to ensure that the train left immediately, without any delay.
His colleagues later recalled that Dastagir could barely stand and breathe as he spoke to them. Breaking all rules and without taking permission from anyone, he and his brave staff personally flagged off the train.
That night, the stationmaster’s quick decision saved the lives of hundreds of people who would have died had they been exposed to the toxic gas for much longer.
But Dastagir’s work was not done. The railway station was filling up with people, desperate to flee the fumes. Some were gasping, others were vomiting, and most were weeping. Dastagir chose to remain on duty, running from one platform to another, attending, helping and consoling victims. He also sent an SOS to all the nearby railway offices, asking for immediate medical help. As a result, four ambulances with paramedics and railway doctors arrived at the station.
It was winter and the gas was staying low to the ground, a thick haze poisoning everything in its path.
Besieged by hordes of suffering people, the station soon resembled the emergency room of a large hospital. Dastagir stayed at the station, steadfastly doing his duty, knowing that his family was out there in the ill-fated city.
Gulam Dastagir’s devotion to duty saved the lives of hundreds of people. However, the catastrophe didn’t leave him unscathed. One of his sons died on the night of the tragedy and another developed a lifelong skin infection. Dastagir himself spent his last 19 years shuttling in and out of hospitals; he developed a painful growth in the throat due to prolonged exposure to toxic fumes. When he passed way in 2003, his death certificate mentioned that he was suffering from diseases caused as a direct result of exposure to MIC (Methyl Isocyanate) gas.
A memorial has been built at platform no.1 to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty on the fateful night of December 3, 1984. However, Ghulam Dastagir, who died later, is not one of them. A forgotten hero whose sense of duty and commitment saved countless lives, Dastagir’s story deserves to be recognised and remembered by his fellow countrymen.