A semitruck carrying a toxic substance overturned in Illinois, causing “multiple fatalities” and dangerous air conditions that prompted the evacuation of area residents, authorities said Saturday.
Firefighters, police and other emergency responders converged on the scene late Friday near Teutopolis and were still on the scene Saturday to try to contain the cloud of anhydrous ammonia that emanated from the overturned tanker.
“We have a lot of brave firemen, EMT, hazmat specialists, police officers that are working on this scene as we speak," Effingham County Sheriff Paul Kuhns said at a Saturday press conference.
Authorities did not say exactly how many people were killed or injured.
“I am sorry to say that we do have multiple fatalities,” Mr. 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," he 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 U.S. 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.
Mr. 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 apologised 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,” Mr. Kuhns said.
There was an earlier accident on Interstate 70 on Friday, and authorities had detoured traffic onto U.S. 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.