As apprehensive residents of this stricken city watched today in eerie silence from a respectful distance and helicopters and crop-duster planes showered a protective curtain of water in the air, Indian engineers neutralized three tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas at the Union Carbide pesticide plant here and breathed a sigh of relief.
With 12 tons of the poisonous gas remaining in an underground storage tank, authorities proclaimed the first phase of the five-day "Operation Faith" a success.
"The situation continues to be normal," S. Varadarajan, director general of the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, told a crowded news conference. He said the methyl isocyanate "is in suspension; so far, temperature and pressure have been maintained."
Varadarajan said that one ton of the deadly gas, the remnants of the 40 tons that spewed out of the factory on Dec. 3 and killed at least 2,000 persons in this central Indian city, already had been converted into an agricultural pesticide.
He said that one of the riskiest phases of the operation -- the injection of nitrogen into the storage tank to force the liquefied gas into another vessel -- was completed without mishap. The other two tons processed today were neutralized in a solution combining alpha naphtha and carbon tetrachloride before being transformed into the pesticide marketed by Union Carbide under the brand name Sevin, said Varadarajan, who is directing the operation.
The process will be continued until all the remaining gas is rendered harmless and the factory then will be closed permanently, he said.
About 150,000 people were injured, many with ulcerated eyes or permanent lung damage, when the lethal gas spewed out two weeks ago and drifted in a cloud over densely populated slum neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods of scrap-wood jhuggies, or makeshift shanties, were all but deserted today as more than 100,000 people had fled Bhopal in anticipation of the delicate neutralizing operation.
The labyrinth of narrow dirt alleys of neighborhoods that on Dec. 3 were turned into a landscape of corpses resembled a ghost town today.
Nearly all of the flimsy huts were locked up, their occupants having fled to temporary refugee camps or to homes of friends and relatives outside the city.
In Jaiprakash, a lone goat wandered through the dirt streets as wild dogs rummaged through piles of garbage. In Chhola, where scores of victims were cremated in mass pyres the day after the tragedy, a young man played a blaring cassette recorder as if to overcome the frightening silence while guarding his family home.
Big black vultures sat in a bo tree denuded by the noxious gas and watched a procession of Gandhian Workers, devout followers of Mohandas K. Gandhi, marching through the slum chanting words of encouragement to the empty houses.
Kalu Ram, 45, an orderly in a local state-run clinic, dabbed his ulcerated eyes with a dirty rag and said that even though he was badly gassed on Dec. 3, he was not afraid of what might happen during the neutralizing process.
"I know they are preparing something there, cleaning the tanks or something," Ram said, gesturing toward the factory. "I took the water treatment last time, and I will take it again," he said, indicating that he would douse himself with water if the plant began spewing toxic chemicals again.
About six miles away, at the T.T. Nagar cricket stadium, more than 1,000 refugees from the slums huddled under blankets in a hastily erected tent and waited out the neutralizing process.
In one corner of the tent, a man lay in a trance, staring at his visitors. Doctors said he had lost his speech and memory as a result of the trauma of the gas disaster.
Nearby, a badly malnourished baby lay in the dirt struggling for breath as his father tried to whisk flies away with a rag. The doctors said his lungs had been damaged by the gas, and that the family had fled to the camp from Chhola when they heard the plant was restarting operations.
The sprawling factory took on a surreal look today, with part of it shrouded in a 15-foot-high jute sacking curtain intended to block drifting clouds of gas in the event of another accidental discharge. Fire trucks continuously hosed down the jute screen on the principle that methyl isocyanate quickly degrades into harmless dimethyl urea when it comes into contact with moisture.
Soviet-built Mi8 helicopters of the Indian Air Force slowly circled the plant at about 200 feet, spraying the area with a fine mist that authorities said would counteract any lethal gas that leaked into the air. Crop-dusters were also used to dump tons of water on the site.
The elaborate water-spraying appeared designed as much to boost public confidence in the precautions as to counteract a leak. Varadarajan said it was "something we were practicing in the event of something abnormal happening. There is nothing in the air at the moment."
Arjun Singh, chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh, said, "All we would do is being done, and we are certainly in good hands."
He and Varadarajan stressed that while four American engineers from Union Carbide inside the heavily guarded plant were being consulted, the operation was being directed by Indian scientists.
Singh reiterated that once the neutralizing is finished, the plant will be "closed permanently."
"It shall not function at this place. It will be permanently removed from here. Now, what Union Carbide wants to do with it, I don't know," said Singh, who remained inside the plant today as a gesture of confidence in the safety of the operation.
While most of the city's streets were deserted, just outside the factory gate, there was a carnival-like atmosphere: several hundred curious onlookers gawked at scores of western journalists, politicians circulated, seeking public exposure in the final week of India's election campaign, and policemen milled about, self-consciously holding towels they had been issued to cover their faces in case of an accidental gas discharge.