Authorities claimed Saturday that a semitruck carrying a poisonous material overturned in Illinois, resulting in “multiple fatalities” and poor air conditions that forced local residents to leave their homes.
To try to contain the anhydrous ammonia cloud that was released from the overturned tanker, firefighters, police, and other emergency responders flocked to the scene late Friday near Teutopolis. They remained there on Saturday.
At a press conference on Saturday, Effingham County Sheriff Paul Kuhns remarked, “We have a lot of brave firemen, EMT, hazmat specialists, and police officers that are working on this scene as we speak.”
Authorities did not say exactly how many people were killed or injured.
“I am sorry to say that we do have multiple fatalities,” Kuhns said. “And I’m sorry to say I don’t have that exact number for you.”
Illinois State Police spokesperson Melaney Arnold said authorities initially thought there were five fatalities, but that turned out to be a premature determination amid the early confusion.
The accident caused “a large plume, cloud of anhydrous ammonia on the roadway that caused terribly dangerous air conditions in the northeast area of Teutopolis,” Kuhns said.
“Because of these conditions, the emergency responders had to wait. They had to mitigate the conditions before they could really get to work on it, and it was a fairly large area.”
The accident, which involved “multiple” vehicles including the tanker, happened about a half-mile east of Teutopolis on US Highway 40 on Friday at about 9:25 p.m., Illinois State Police said in an emailed statement.
Tim McMahon, chief of the Teutopolis Fire Protection District, said the tanker began leaking after rolling over in a ditch. He said authorities are still preventing cars from driving in that area.
Kuhns said he did not have information on whether the deaths were the result of the crash itself or the chemical leak. But he said that “the accident scene was large.”
He apologized for any inconvenience that is resulting from the investigation and the evacuation.
“I understand how frustrating that would be to not be allowed to travel or to go back home, but we really need to focus our resources on the spill and on the situation, so if people can have as much patience, that’s what I would ask for,” Kuhns said.
There was an earlier accident on Interstate 70 on Friday, and authorities had detoured traffic onto US Highway 40, including the tanker.
Anhydrous ammonia is toxic and can be a health hazard if safe handling procedures are not followed. Effects of inhalation of anhydrous ammonia range from lung irritation to severe respiratory injuries, with possible death at higher concentrations.
Anhydrous ammonia is also corrosive and can burn the skin and eyes. Teutopolis is about 92 miles (148 kilometers) southeast of Springfield, the capital of Illinois.