Dammam gas leak sends residents to hospital
Civil Defense members in full protective gear on the premises of Middle East Engineering Company Ltd. facility in Dammam’s 1st Industrial City on Wednesday as toxic gas billows out. (AN photo by Sadeq Al-Ahmed)
DAMMAM: A number of people were hospitalized Wednesday morning after inhaling toxic gases that leaked from Middle East Engineering Company’s plant in Dammam 1st Industrial City.
Within hours, authorities told residents in areas close to the industrial city to stay indoors. Schools were ordered shut. The Dammam-Alkhobar Highway was clogged in the morning hours after the Civil Defense closed all entrances leading into the industrial city.
A late night SMS advisory by the Civil Defense Wednesday said the contamination in affected areas was down to 70 percent. The agency promised to continue keeping the population updated through SMS.
The cause of the leak is still being investigated. In a written statement to Arab News, company spokesman Khalid Al-Saleem said: “Middle East Engineering Company Ltd. (MEELSA) is proactively managing the situation at our Dammam facility. We are working actively with all emergency response teams and the Saudi authorities. MEELSA is taking every possible measure to ensure the community’s safety.”
Residents in the affected areas told Arab News that there was an offensive smell in the air around midnight Tuesday. “It was very nauseating and I immediately started coughing,” said 52-year-old Muhammad Saif Al-Harithy, who lives in the Al-Safa district of Dammam. His sons rushed him to a nearby hospital where he was immediately put on a nebulizer. He was not the only one. There were others at the hospital who had gone there with similar complaints.
Al-Rakah, where the International Indian School and other schools are located, also falls in the Al-Safa area. Since Al-Safa is close to the 1st Industrial City, the schools were immediately ordered shut.
“Children who had turned up at the school were asked to call their parents and drivers to take them home. We ensured that all our students were sent back home in an organized way,” said Indian School Principal E.K. Mohammad Shaffe.
One Indian schoolteacher said the offensive odor became stronger and stronger after they reached the school. “We were naturally petrified,” said Shadan Hashmi. “Our first and immediate instinct was to protect the children.”
A Civil Defense spokesman said those areas that fell directly in the direction of the wind were the worst affected. Among them were Askan Dammam, Al-Naserriya, Al-Khalidia, Hail Al-Ryyan, Hail Al-Rawdah, Hail Al-Petromin, Hail Al-Safa and Hail Al-Nuzha.
A doctor at a hospital in Dammam said his patients were complaining of severe breathing problems. “They are feeling as if they are choking … The problem is acute among those who are asthmatic,” he said.
A Civil Defense official told Arab News earlier in the day that the leak had been plugged but that the toxic chemicals were still in the air. “It will take some time for it to be carried away by the winds,” he told Arab News. “There is no need to panic; we are taking all safety measures.”
All government schools were ordered closed. There was a huge presence of Civil Defense officials near the 1st Industrial City entrances. They have advised people in the affected areas to stay at home and keep their windows and doors shut. They were not allowing anyone to enter the area.
“Our office is just next to the main gate of the industrial city, and when I tried entering it at 7:30 a.m. we were told that it was closed to the public,” said Wasim Javed, who works for Saudi Distribution Co., which distributes Arab News among other newspapers. “The closure led to a huge traffic jam in the area.”
Javed said the air was filled with a pungent smell. “One could feel heavy in the chest,” he said. His colleague Abid Khan reported similar problems. “Not only was it offensive, it made us feel dizzy,” said Khan.
Residents have called for stringent measures to avoid recurrence of such toxic leaks. “Thank God, it was not deadly,” said Muneer Al-Qahtani, a safety engineer. “What if it were? One shudders to think of the consequences,” he exclaimed and called for robust measures to plug all loopholes in chemical companies.
— with a report from Molouk Y. Ba-isa