First the air was filled with poison. Then it was filled with lawyers -- lawyers from other places, descending in airplanes with the hope of turning the awful misery to advantage. Where are you Mark Twain, Charles Dickens when we need you? Who else could do justice to the kind of "justice" being pursued in this unhappy scene. In the city, survivors of the chemical gas disaster mourn their dead. Hospitals and health centers struggle to treat the injured and dying. The bodies of dead animals litter the streets. Mother Teresa visits the sick and mourning and counsels forgiveness. And, in the midst of it all there they are: rival teams of American lawyers competing for clients.

The best known of the would-be claimants' representatives is, of course, Melvin Belli. "You couldn't lose a case like this," Mr. Belli is quoted as saying, ". . . the only question is the amount of damages." Mr. Belli hopes to collect $15 billion for his clients in a class-action suit filed in West Virginia, where Union Carbide, which owns 51 percent of the Bhopal subsidiary corporation, runs a similar pesticide plant.

Mr Belli won't be without competitors. The Bhopal city government has hired a team of liability lawyers from this area to represent it in a Connecticut suit. That team -- which has as its slogan "Get Union Carbide" -- says it has already signed up 7,000 plaintiffs and is going for 20,000. Another legal group from Los Angeles is also organizing a suit to be filed in New York.

Normally lawyers would prefer to sue in the jurisdiction where a disaster has occurred, since local juries are most sympathetic to the victims' plight, and where judges are most familiar with applicable law. But suits adjudicated by U.S. courts -- even though they would typically apply Indian law and standards in assigning blame and assessing individual damages, are expected to produce much more lucrative punitive damage awards. If adjudication of the Bhopal claims plays out according to the usual U.S. model, you can expect three results: many victims will not be compensated for years; awards will vary in quixotic fashion depending on who was represented by whom in what suit; the lawyers will end up with anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the take. Sizable punitive damages, which are not insurable, could also bankrupt the parent as well as the subsidiary company's 13 other Indian plants, thus further delaying and limiting payments.

At best it will be difficult to arrive at a fair settlement. The causes of the gas leakage may be hard to establish. Then there will still be difficult questions involving the appropriate basis for assessing damages and the relative responsibility of Union Carbide, the local subsidiary and the Indian government -- which required Union Carbide to produce its pesticides locally, set and monitored safety and environmental standards and owns the land onto which squatters moved after the plant was built.

Even determining victims and relatives will be very hard, since many bodies were cremated before they were identified. Viewing this situation as a case of "the great Union Carbide and the poor Indian," as Mr. Belli sees it, is not likely to be the best way either to achieve just treatment for the victims of this horrifying disaster, or to reduce the dangers involved in the production and use of pesticides throughout the world.

While acknowledging that the Bhopal chemical gas disaster will haunt his company for years to come, Union Carbide chairman Warren B. Anderson expressed the hope this week that some way could be found to help victims and their families quickly. That -- together with finding ways to avert similar disasters in the future -- strikes ustoo as the first order of business.