WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – The small Connecticut hamlet of Newtown is not a stranger to tragedy.
Aside from the recent massacre at its Sandy Hook Elementary School, the people of Newtown and adjacent Danbury had to deal with another major disaster back in the mid-1980s: the infamous chemical plant leak in far-away Bhopal, India.
Considered one of the worst industrial accidents in history, more than 3,700 people were killed when noxious pesticide gasses escaped the complex and filtered into the city of Bhopal. Indian authorities eventually claimed an additional 15,000 people suffered permanent injuries from the chemical leak and exposure to its hazardous fumes.
At the time, the Bhopal complex was owned and operated by a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation, which maintained its executive headquarters just a few miles from the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School, in nearby Danbury.
Carbide, which once employed almost 4,000 workers at its headquarters, was the region’s biggest employer.
A long-time resident of Park Ave. in Manhattan, the Carbide brass pulled up their stakes in 1980 for the “peace and serenity” of the Connecticut countryside.
It was one of the biggest corporate relocations of the decade, intended to give Carbide employees an opportunity to “escape” the pressures of New York City.
Many of those workers relocated to Newtown and Danbury, which, while close to New York City, also had the rustic charm of the New England countryside.
Said Carbide’s Ken Graff who was manager of corporate photography, “I actually moved to Newtown from Long Island before the building opened.”
Speaking to The News Times newspaper in 2010, Graff added: “For a while I was a reverse commuter. I got a shuttle bus at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown and went to Park Ave. every day.”
The headquarters was considered a community “jewel.” The ultra-modern architecture resembled the famed space-trotting “Battlestar Galactica,” said Timothy Bishop (another Carbide worker) to The News Times.
But then as now, tragedy struck.
Also in the month of December, but in 1984, Bhopal occurred.
Irv Agard, another Carbide executive told The News Times: “I remember going back to Danbury (headquarters). It was like a tomb in there.”
The Bhopal accident was eventually traced to criminal negligence, both in India and Connecticut.
A series of lawsuits and government sanctions eventually saw Carbide leave India. The company then faced a series of hostile takeover attempts in the United States. Eventually, Union Carbide was broken up with its central businesses going to Dow Chemical, where it continues to operate today.
The Danbury headquarters, which played home to almost 4,000 employees, was ultimately shuttered by Dow and moved to Michigan.
Newtown and other communities in the region never recovered from the Carbide exodus. And now, another disaster continues to unfold for what was until last Friday a “tranquil” community in the Connecticut woods.