robably the most devastating fire accident in the country took place in the port town of Vishakhapatnam (Vizag), where an Oil Refinery is located. The 41-year old Refinery had been shutdown for repairs for almost a month, and had re- commenced operations just 3 days prior to the incident. On 14th September, 1997, a sunday, LPG was being pumped from a ship, docked at the port 15 kms. away, into the horton storage spheres at the Refinery. A leak had developed in one of the pipelines close to the spheres due to corrosion, and a large amount of the LPG was leaking out at pressure. The leak had been noticed arund 5.15 a.m., but continued for almost an hour and half without much being done. A huge LPG vapour cloud formed and ignited at 6.40 a.m., resulted in a vapour cloud explosion. The blast wave of the explosion affected most buildings in the Refinery complex, and completely destroyed the canteen and administrative block. The resultant heat wave ignited a number of other fires, affecting the storage area as also the loading gantry. Due to the collapse of the affected buildings, a number of people were trapped beneath the debris. At the same time, a number of fires were observed at locations, including the storage areas. The explosion could be heard from miles away, and panic-stricken people living in the nearby areas, including Naval and Shipyard residential colonies were seen running helter-skelter. Residents said the inferno could be seen from a distance of nearly 10 km even as late as Sunday evening. A cloud of black smoke enveloped the city, and an off-site emergency was declared. Intermittent showers were experienced in the evening, but they provided little respite as the fires continued unabated. In fact the rains further compounded the situation as the smoke and soot mixed with the rain water, showering 'black rain' on the people.

The firefighting operations were undertaken by the Refinery team, as well as those of the navy and neighbouring industries, while some teams travelled almost 400 kms to offer their services. Considering the large number of flammable liquid fires, it was felt that the foam compound stock was totally inadequate and additional stocks were deployed from different cities, and airlifted to site. Though attempts were made to put out the storage tank fires, it was an almost impossible task, considering the number of tanks involved, and most fires were allowed to burn out under control. On the second day, another tank suddenly burst into flames, complicating the situation further. The firefighting strategy remained limited to cooling operations and preventing the spread of fire to the unaffected areas of the Refinery. As many as 25 storage tanks containing fuels like naphtha, petrol, kerosene, mineral turpentine, LSHS, etc, and 6 LPG horton spheres, were damaged, many fully gutted. Around 19 building structures collapsed or were badly damaged, Various casualty figures were given, and while government officials claimed that around 60 people were killed in the tragedy, unofficial sources still insist that the number is much higher around 80. Considering the severity of the accident, the figure were lower because it occurred on a holiday. The total losses was estimated to be Rs. 600 million.

Vizag Refinery disaster-effects and consequent safety upgradation

After the Bhopal disaster, the Vizag Refinery accident was easily the most destructive in the history of indian industry. The other important fact was that like the Bhopal accident, it also affected people outside the premises of the industry. In this case, an off-site emergency was declared and the public administration had to be fully involved in the operations/ activities associated with the accident. A large number of people residing close to the refinery were evacuated, and relief/ rehabiliation provided to them. Like the Bhopal disaster, it was an industrial accident which attracted the maximum media attention.

The other important fact was that inspite of major industrial accidents in the recent past, both outside and within the country, (such as the Piper alpha disaster in 1988, Mahul Refinery in 1989, and the Nagothane incident in 1990), there was a lack of appreciation of the risks associated with highly hazardous materials. Amongst the other important contributory factors to the accident were the fact that being an old refinery, many new practices with respect to location of units, inter-unit distances had not been implemented. Safety awareness had clearly not been given due importance, and over a period of time, personnel had developed a lackadaisical attitude to their work (an accident involving a naphtha storage tank had occurred just 10 months earlier!). There was also a lack of an emergency communication system and generally, the disaster management plan had not been strictly implemented. Preparations for major emergencies in terms of equipment, fire fighting chemicals and regular drills, were clearly inadequate.

Some of the major consequences of this accident was the strengthening of codes for hazardous operations. A number of new codes were also introduced by the OISD - Oil Industry Safety Directorate, after this. Newer and more stricter codes for fire protection arrangements were also introduced. It became mandatory for hazardous industries not only to have emergency plans, but also conduct regular drills. Within the industry, work practices were re-examined and changed keeping in view safety aspects. As the outside population was also affected in this incident, off-site disaster management assumed added importance and it became mandatory for industries to prepare disaster plans and submit it to the local civic authorities, for their knowledge and preparation.