BHOPAL, India -- Survivors of the worst chemical industry disaster in history -- many of them blinded -- streamed back to their homes today near a pesticide plant where a poisonous gas leak killed more than 2,000 people.
'We are still afraid,' said Vram Narain Nagar, 42, a truck driver. 'We feel we have no protection living here.
'I came back to look for my relatives. I found my uncle, his wife and two children -- all dead.'
A team of U.S. government health and environmental experts from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was heading for Bhopal to help in relief efforts, said the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
'The worst is over,' said a Madhya Pradesh state official at Hamidia Hospital, nearly four days after 25 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas poured from the Union Carbide plant.
The Press Trust of India domestic news agency reported the death toll had exceeded 2,000 in Bhopal and neighboring villages. Another 50,000 people were treated for gas inhalation.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Arjun Singh told a news conference the official toll was 1,267, but he admitted he 'had no numbers on deaths' in areas surrounding Bhopal, 360 miles south of New Delhi.
Although an estimated 20 to 30 tons of gas remained in tanks at the plant, hundreds of poor people returned to their huts today. Many said they returned to look after their meager belongings and homes and because they had nowhere else to go. Many were blinded and faced the prospect of kidney and other diseases as a result of exposure to the deadly gas.
'People are still arriving but the rate is declining,' said a staff member at the government-run Hamidia hospital.
The leak of methyl cyanate gas at Bhopal was the worst chemical industry disaster in history.
The Washingon Post reported two Indian workers who should have been responsible for stopping the leak ran away, leaving their supervisor to fend for himself.
The Soviet media said the disaster was an example of how U.S. corporations exploit Third World nations with a 'policy of profit at all costs.'
More than 50,000 people treated for injuries received in the leak have sought help at hospitals, which had to set up makeshift tented wards to cope. Hundreds of victims remained in critical condition.
A preliminary investigation determined that 25 tons of methyl cyanate spewed from the U.S.-owned pesticide plant after a 'runaway chemical reaction' caused a pressure buildup in an underground tank.
Health experts were trying to determine the long-term medical implications of the gas leak. They expressed fears that hundreds of victims would be left blind and that others could suffer permanent paralysis and neurological disorders.
Other officials expressed fears of epidemics -- citing the large number of bodies awaiting cremation or burial and the thousands of decaying carcasses of cattle that littered streets. They said collection of the dead animals was hampered because the task is normally handled by members of the lower caste and that group was most seriously affected by the gas leak.
Environmental scientists were conducting studies today to determine whether any atmosheric pollution remained. The water was certified safe but experts said they were not sure if vegetables were contaminated.
High court justice N. K. Singh headed a judicial inquiry into whether proper saftey measures were followed at the plant.
Arjun Singh, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, vowed to prosecute any Union Carbide officials found to have circumvented regulations. Five management officials were arrested Monday on charges of negligence.
'I don't think we were ever warned by the company' of the potential dangers posed by its operation, he said, reiterating a vow that the plant 'is never going to start functioning here -- never again.'