This is a hard one to tell. My father, gone now nine years, was an executive with Union Carbide. He was an engineer by trade and moved the family to Tokyo, where I was raised, in 1959 in order to design and build the Carbide plant there, their first in Asia. That became the prototype for the Carbide plant in Virginia and later, in Bhopal. At some point in I think the mid 60’s, he became aware of a flaw in the design of the plant…a vulnerability that could be triggered by human error. He waged a mighty battle with the NY Carbide headquarters powers that be, to set it right. They were uninterested. Too costly. Fortunately, by enlisting the considerable assistance of Carbide’s Japanese corporate partners and Japan’s government, he/they prevailed. The correction was funded by NY and completed. (He was permitted to stay on with Carbide in Tokyo for the remaining years of his career but, as making those kinds of stands can do, it cost him considerably in his career. NY never fired him, but they did bring in an American boss above him. Humiliating but at least in Tokyo office, folks knew why Dad had in effect been so severely demoted.)
Much of the following I only know through the lens of my childhood so great chunks of what actually went on, not to mention all engineering facts, are not known to me. Here is what I do know…
When a version of Dad’s design was to be built in Virginia he pleaded with the Carbide board to amend the flaw. They did not. In what year I do not recall..70’s perhaps?…because of that flaw, that plant had an incident in which near catastrophe was somehow averted. To my knowledge the flaw remained in place. Mid to late 70’s, Dad retired.
I remember him being distraught when the disaster in Bhopal happened. “I warned them, I told them”, kind of dinner table thrashings. Whilst he had not been directly involved in Carbide’s expansion into India, my sister and I did witness him feel a terrible weight of responsibility and powerlessness against corporate will.
The unthinkable happened, the trial, the facts/the flaw exposed for good and all, the collapse of Carbide, the settlement paid to the Indian government. I learned recently from a high placed diplomat who had served in India for many years, that a sliver of that payment went to the victims. Tragedy upon tragedy.
Dad lived to 100 and I got to be his caregiver for his end of days. Forgive me…this is intimate. As his time approached he would toss and turn during the night, on and off with hallucinations. Hospice counseled me that this was not uncommon amongst the dying. Labor pains of death, I suppose. I slept in the room with him his last few weeks and on occasion he would utter worried protestations like… “They’re coming to get me.”, “No!” I would quiet him down as best I could through the night. He was a good man…I could not fathom who these “people” might be…nor could I understand why he, in his aged frailty, was hanging on. Clearly he was wrestling with something…and in hindsight now I think he held on in order to work through his soul’s burden.
Two, maybe three nights before he died he hollered…and where that strength came from I do not know…the words, “I told you I was sorry. What more do you want me to say?” I assumed he was talking to my dead Mother, making some sort of private amends for emotional injuries that can happen in any long and good marriage.
Again he hung on and continued to be restless. The night before he died, he was particularly active in his bed…I was half awake when at 1:40 am, a man who could no longer move, sat bolt upright and in full voice bellowed the words, “Bhopal! Bhopal! Bhopal!” Then he lay back down and went soundly to sleep for the first time in weeks. With long deep breaths, not the short pants he had been pulling in for days, his body was utterly relaxed and so remained until he drew his last breath 14 or so hours later.
Guilt is not always a rational demon. We know he had done everything humanly possible to sound the alarms. If this indeed was guilt, it was irrational. He was, however a deeply compassionate man and so as is the lot of those types, he too felt for his fellow man’s sufferings with little defense to the barbs.
I’d never before nor since witnessed a wrestling of the conscience, of the soul but feel I did in my Dad’s moments. If crie de coeurs have power then that too is what I saw transform his physical being. I believe he rests in peace. May it be so for all the victims of that terrible day in India.
One thought on “BHOPAL”
This is heart-wrenching but vital – thank you so much for sharing this. ❤️