A Wisconsin farmer hauling anhydrous ammonia fertilizer in Beach Park, Ill., caused a hazardous material leak that sent at least 40 people to the hospital and left seven people, including a firefighter, in serious or critical condition Thursday.
Sgt. Christopher Covelli of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department said a 59-year-old man from Sturtevant was driving a farm tractor south on Green Bay Road in Beach Park at about 4:30 a.m. pulling two tanks, each filled with two tons of anhydrous ammonia.
A hose connecting the two tanks broke, and ammonia began to leak “very rapidly,” according to Beach Park Fire Chief Paul Tierney.
Anhydrous ammonia is a widely used fertilizer that farmers use to add nitrogen to the soil for crops like field corn.
But when ammonia spills, it becomes a gas when it hits the air, and if inhaled it can cause illness, unconsciousness and — at high exposure levels — death.
Tierney said when the fire department received the first 911 call about the spill near 29th Street, the witness mistook the plume of gas coming from the tanks as a car fire.
He said firefighters in a single engine headed to what they thought would be an uncomplicated call for a car fire.
“They came up from their station on Major Avenue to turn onto Green Bay, and just as they were going to turn they saw civilians down in the roadway,” Tierney said. “They could see a plume of what they thought was smoke obscuring the scene two blocks north.”
Tierney said the firefighters jumped from their truck to help the people down on the road, not yet knowing that there was a spill and not putting on masks.
“As soon as they get out, they inhale the anhydrous ammonia,” Tierney said. “They thought they were going to a regular car fire, and it became a very bad situation very quickly.”
A Lake County Sheriff’s deputy and sergeant who responded to the call were also overcome by the gas.
Tierney said the people hospitalized included both drivers who drove into the plume of gas as they came through Green Bay Road and people who lived in nearby homes.
He said one woman who drove into the plume was overcome and lost control of her vehicle, crashing into a ditch.
Pamela Burnett of unincorporated Warren Township said she was headed to her job in Kenosha when she drove through the toxic cloud. Burnett said she wasn’t sure if it was smoke or dust from the shoulder of the road.
“It kept on getting bigger and bigger — this wasn’t going away. I tried to slow down and not go through it,” Burnett told reporters at the scene. “The next thing I knew, I couldn’t breathe. It was such a strong smell. I thought to myself, ‘Lord this is it. I’m done now.’”
Burnett, 57, said she pulled off the road while “spitting and coughing” and called 911. She was taken to a hospital for treatment. Her condition wasn’t immediately known.
The chief said the area around the spill is densely populated, with areas of Beach Park, Zion and Wadsworth affected.
People within a 1-mile radius of the spill were ordered to stay indoors.
Although close to the state line, the 1-mile zone did not extend into Wisconsin.
Teams of firefighters, paramedics and hazardous materials crews rescued people from homes who lived near the site and did wellness checks on an additional 100 homes.
The order remained in effect until about 10 a.m.
The Beach Park Fire Department was aided by fire departments as far south as Evanston and into Wisconsin, including the Pleasant Prairie Fire Department.
‘Hospitals were packed’
Twenty-five ambulances brought 40 people to hospitals, including Vista East in Waukegan, Condell Hospital in Libertyville, Lake Forest Hospital and St. Catherine’s Medical Center in Pleasant Prairie.
Those taken to hospitals included 11 firefighters and three law enforcement personnel.
Tierney said seven people, including a firefighter, were initially in critical or serious condition. He said two or three people remained on ventilators Thursday afternoon.
The firefighter’s condition had improved Thursday afternoon, Tierney said, and he was taken off a ventilator although he remained hospitalized.
In addition to the 40 people taken to hospitals by ambulance, many more people drove themselves to local emergency rooms with symptoms including headaches and nausea, Tierney said.
“Hospitals were packed,” he said.
Covelli said the incident remains under investigation. He said the person driving the tractor was not among those hospitalized. He said the person’s name is not being released unless he is charged.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.