Worst Way to Die? Being Gassed by a Chemical Weapon Named Sarin

Worst Way to Die? Being Gassed by a Chemical Weapon Named Sarin

Sebastien Roblin


It would be hell. 

Key Point: Chemical weapons have repeatedly proven to be inherently indiscriminate terror weapons.

The residents of Khan Sheikhoun probably thought they were in for just another ordinary day of civil war when they woke up early in the morning of April 4 to the whine of approaching Syrian Air Force Su-22 attack jets. The town of around fifty thousand people was situated west of Aleppo in Idlib Province, long a stronghold of rebel groups opposing the government of Bashar al-Assad since 2011. Artillery and air attacks were a horribly routine aspect of daily life there, as they are in many parts of Syria, divided by numerous warring factions.

Residents later reported that the munitions dropped by the jets released clouds of poisonous gas. Even this was hardly unheard of in Idlib Province. Even while Assad handed over his stockpiles of mustard gas and deadly nerve agents, government helicopters launched at least a dozen chlorine-gas attacks on communities in Idlib Province alone in 2014 and 2015. However, while chlorine gas causes horrifying respiratory problems, particularly in children and the elderly, it usually killed “only” a handful of people per attack, if any.

However, rescuers arriving from outside Khan Sheikhoun beheld an unexpectedly nightmarish sight: more than six hundred civilians lying paralyzed in their homes or helpless on the ground, limbs convulsing, saliva foaming from their noses and mouths as they gasped for breath. Local first responders—the lucky ones that hadn’t died or fallen violently ill when arriving on the scene—were frantically spraying the twitching bodies with hoses.

These symptoms correspond to the effects of sarin, a colorless, odorless nerve agent that disrupts acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that helps a muscle relax once it has completed an action. By blocking the enzyme, sarin has the effect of continuously triggering those muscles, making breathing effectively impossible as well as causing the breakdown of other bodily functions, and leading to the discharge of bodily fluids.

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