At least 11 people, including a child, died on Thursday morning after toxic gas leaked from a chemical plant of a company in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam city, ANI reported quoting the director general of the National Disaster Response Force. The gas leak occurred at the LG Polymers Plant at RR Venkatapuram near Naiduthota area between 2.30 am and 3 am and reportedly spread over a radius of about 3 km, affecting at least five villages.

Fire engines, the police and ambulances reached the area to control the situation. The National Disaster Response Force was also called in. There were varying reports on how many people were injured. Some reports said around 800 people were taken to hospitals, a few others pegged it at 1,000. According to PTI, nearly 250 were undergoing treatment with 20 of them on ventilator support.

After the incident, Andhra Pradesh Police said reports of a second gas leak were false. “Reports of a second leak at LG Polymers premises are false,” a tweet said. “Maintenance team was repairing the system and some vapour was let out. There is no second leak.”

In a series of tweets, IT and Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said a help desk has been set up at the department of industries’ general manager’s office in Visakhapatnam. People can get in touch with Deputy Director S Prasada Rao on his mobile numbers 7997952301 and 891923934, and another officer R Brahma on 9701197069.

Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police Gautam Sawang said the gas has been “neutralised”, ANI reported. “One of the antidotes is drinking a lot of water,” he advised the public. “Around 800 were shifted to hospital, many have been discharged. Investigation will be carried out to see how this happened.”

Sawang said the leakage was an accident and that the factory had been following all protocols. He said an investigation is under way and forensic teams are at the spot. Workers were gearing up to reopen the plant when the gas began leaking, according to The Indian Express.

Visakhapatnam Joint Inspector of Factories J Siva Sankar Reddy said the chemical plant was not operational due to the nationwide lockdown imposed to combat the coronavirus, PTI reported. “The company was planning to reopen it soon,” he added. “There were just a few employees – security guards and maintenance personnel there at the time of the incident.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he spoke to the officials of Ministry of Home Affairs and National Disaster Management Authority regarding the situation in Visakhapatnam and he was closely monitoring it. “I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” he added. The prime minister also convened a meeting with the NDMA on the situation.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission of India issued a notice to the Andhra Pradesh government and the Centre following the leakage of poisonous gas.

The incident triggered panic and several people were found unconscious on the streets as some faced breathing problems. Some people also complained of rashes on their body and burning sensation in their eyes.

Exposure to styrene, also known as ethenylbenzene and vinylbenzene, a chemical released in the gas leak, can affect the central nervous system, causing headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression.

DVSS Ramana, a resident of Naiduthota, said the smell of gas woke them up. “When we went outside, the whole air was filled with gas,” Ramana told The Indian Express. “It entered our homes and caused breathing problems and burning sensation in the lungs. We are being evacuated. We are going to our relative’s place.

Reports said that officials with the emergency services also fell unconscious during evacuations after the gas leak. The police have made announcements, urging people to leave the area, however some are feared to have fallen unconscious inside their homes, Assistant Commissioner of Police Swaroopa Rani said.

She added that the police have been unable to enter the localities due to the foul smell. However, hundreds of residents have been evacuated to safer places. The gas has reportedly spread to 20 adjacent villages, with locals complaining of suffocation. Local legislator P Gana Babu told Hindustan Times that ambulances for coronavirus patients are being used to evacuate people.

“There is gas leakage identified at LG Polymers in Gopalpatnam. Requesting Citizens around these locations not to come out of houses for the sake of safety precautions,” the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation tweeted.

The state’s tourism minister M Srinivasa Rao and Deputy Superintendent of Police Udaya Bhaskar have visited the neighbourhoods affected by the leak.

Hindustan Polymers was set up in 1961 and later taken over by South Korea’s LG Chem. In 1997, it was renamed as LG Polymers India. The chemical plant produces polystyrene and expandable polystyrene – a plastic used to make a wide range of items like toys and appliances.