Factory fires, mine shaft collapses, progressive respiratory ailments or malignancies afflicting whole populations engaged in a particular manufacturing trade -- to the classic images of industrial disaster there has been added another: the sudden, silent poisoning of huge numbers of victims who live near chemical or nuclear installations.

This is, in fact, the archetypal environmental anxiety of our time -- and it seems to have been fulfilled in Bhopal, India. Its essential nightmare elements were all there: the toxic cloud that crept up suddenly while people slept, the enveloping poison that couldn't be fought or resisted, the pursuing cloud from which people and animals frantically sought to flee. The consequences are still being measured. Two thousand dead by unofficial count. Possibly tens of thousands injured.

Who is to blame for the tragedy? How can similar disasters be avoided in the future? Numerous factors combine to produce a disaster of this magnitude, so the questions raise other questions that are, in turn, hard to answer. How adequate were the safeguards built into the plant's operations? How well trained were the managers and workers responsible for monitoring the known dangers in the handling of the highly lethal chemicals involved? Should the government have stopped people from moving into the shantytown that grew up around the factory? Were plans made to evacuate nearby residents in case of disaster? Should the American company, Union Carbide, which owns 51 percent of the factory, bear responsibili- ties that would not apply to an Indian owner? There is no way short of abolishing industrial progress to remove all its attendant hazards. And halting industrial growth in developing countries such as India would deny their people the benefits of longer and healthier lives that the products of industry, such as the pesticides produced at the Bhopal plant, can bring to populations. But companies in this country have learned -- slowly, to be sure, and not without considerable pressure from unions and government -- that better industrial design and worker training can reduce risks to both workers and communities. Countries whose resources are much scarcer may be reluctant to make the added investments needed to minimize production hazards. But whatever their legal obligations, U.S. companies operating abroad should feel morally obligated to employ the same safeguards that they undertake at home.

All of the questions that have been raised about this terrible tragedy will be very painful in the answering. There are plenty of people around whose first inclination has, predictably, been to attribute all fault to either the American parent company or its Third World partners and workers -- depending in which direction their prejudices lie. And, because so much money in addition to the responsibility for so much suffering is involved, there is bound to be much passing back and forth of blame among the participants in the chemical venture. It will be a second tragedy if such considerations manage to prevent the kind of unsparing scrutiny the Bhopal accident requires in order to help avert its happening again.