At least 5 dead in crash that causes toxic gas leak
By Jesús Jiménez
Five people died after a crash involving multiple vehicles including a tractor-trailer carrying anhydrous ammonia that overturned in Illinois late last week, leading to a leak of the toxic gas and prompting residents within a 1-mile radius of the crash site to evacuate, officials said.
The vehicle rolled over on U.S. Highway 40, about a half-mile east of Teutopolis, Illinois, which is about 90 miles southeast of Springfield, around 9:25 p.m. Friday, releasing a large plume of anhydrous ammonia and causing dangerous air conditions, officials said at a news conference Saturday morning.
Kim Rhodes, the Effingham County coroner, said five people had died as a result of the crash, adding that it was possible additional fatalities could be reported later. It was not immediately clear how the victims died.
Three of the victims were from the area, including a child and an adult who were from the same family, Rhodes said. Two other victims were from Ohio and Missouri, she said.
Chief Tim McMahon of the Teutopolis Fire Protection District said that five people with injuries were airlifted to hospitals and another victim was taken to a hospital in a vehicle. Their conditions were not immediately known.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said Saturday afternoon that the vehicle was carrying 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia and an estimated 4,000 gallons had been released.
McMahon said at the news conference that a hazmat team had patched the ruptured part of the tanker, which slowed but did not stop the leak. As of Saturday afternoon, the leak was still partially patched, and crews were working to identify the safest way to empty the tanker, the Illinois EPA said.
About 500 people were evacuated from the area, the agency said, but residents were allowed to return Saturday evening. About 1,500 people live in the village of Teutopolis. Officials advised residents to air out their homes out by opening all windows.
“If you feel there is a strong odor or start to feel sick, call 911 immediately to have the residence checked by fire personnel,” Effingham County emergency officials said.
Because of the dangerous plume of gas, emergency crews had to wait before responding to the crash, Sheriff Paul Kuhns said.
“They had to mitigate the conditions before they could really get to work on it, and it was a fairly large area,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to help with the investigation.
Anhydrous ammonia — often used in manufacturing, refrigeration and agriculture — is a toxic gas that can be corrosive if people have contact with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s terrible,” Kuhns said. “It’s bad stuff if you are involved in it — breathe it, especially — because it gets in your airways, in your lungs.”
Environmental Protection Agency workers were expected to arrive later Saturday to monitor air quality.
McMahon said that shifting wind directions had further complicated the response to the crash. Crews were set up in multiple locations to respond to the gas leak based on the wind changes, he said.
Illinois state Sens. Steve McClure, Jason Plummer and Chapin Rose said in a statement that they were monitoring the situation and expressed condolences to the victims’ families, adding, “Please stay clear of the area and allow first responders to work.”