Around 4 am on December 3, 1984, Dr DK Satpathy received a call asking him to rush to the mortuary immediately. The person on the other side said, “Try to reach the mortuary as soon as possible, there are casualties beyond our imagination.”
Satpathy who was then a 35-year-old forensic doctor with the state government’s Hamidia Hospital rushed to the mortuary. On his way, he saw a line of bodies from the masjid to the Gandhi Medical College. Some were dead. Some were in anguish, some vomiting, some were being fed water.
Dr. Satpathy reached the mortuary and saw hundreds of corpses stacked one on top of another. He learned that four hours earlier, about 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, along with other chemicals, had leaked into the atmosphere of Bhopal from the Union Carbide India Ltd factory causing several deaths. It is termed as one of the worst industrial disasters in history, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Satpathy was in shock but he had to control his emotions and get to work. The mortuary had at least 600 corpses.
He began counting the bodies as autopsies were conducted. He allotted 10 corpses each to the interns and final year students.
Satpathy instructed them to write down whatever identification markers they could find in whatever language they could write.
Satpathy says he had performed autopsies on 876 bodies. By the end of December, this number rose to 1,300.
Satpathy was informed that someone from the hospital had called up the medical officer of the Union Carbide factory. “It is just tear gas. Just wash their eyes and mouth with water. It will affect patients only mildly,” the medical officer had responded.
However, on conducting the autopsy, they identified the cause of the mass casualty. All of them had frothing mouths and noses, red eyes and rashes and every person had died of respiratory failure.
But Satpathy found blood in both the veins and the arteries of the bodies was red. This occurs when there is cyanide poisoning.
The next day, Satpathy and the other doctors were informed that the leaked gas was from Union Carbide. A German scientist, Don Derreira, who had arrived in Bhopal told the team to test their hypothesis further.
The team tested the urine of the worst affected victim with sodium thiosulfate. They found that the thiocyanate content had increased 10-fold which meant there was cyanide present in his body.
This led to the finding of the poisonous MIC gas, which was the main ingredient in Sevin pesticides manufactured by Union Carbide.
All the tissues were analyzed and up to 22 compounds were isolated, out of which all but two were identified. All 22 compounds were also found in tank E610. The owner was the culprit. The team had linked the responsibility of the deaths and also suggested the treatment.
However, Union Carbide claimed that MIC could not cross the placental blood barrier of a pregnant woman to affect the foetus.
Satpathy conducted an autopsy on the body of a woman who was two months pregnant and found that 75-80 percent of toxic substances found in her were also present in the foetus which meant that the pregnant women survivors would give birth to babies with congenital disabilities.
Detailed scientific research should have been carried out to find out more about the unknown effects of MIC on the human body but the government showed negligence towards medical and research .
On 7 June 2010, a Bhopal court convicted seven executives of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) to two years imprisonment in connection with the incident.
Satpathy had preserved the hundreds of samples of the victims for 20 years. He requested the government agencies to study the sample but no one came forward.
In 2006, power failure destroyed the safely preserved tissue and samples that he had tried hard to save.
Satpathy condemns the failure of the Indian council of medical research to investigate the tragedy. He claims that a disaster management system should have been implemented, but to date, there is no progress.
Satpathy says that if something like this happens again, nobody will still know how to manage the disaster.