The crash Friday evening left five people dead and several injured, according to Illinois officials.
An Illinois father and his two young children are among five people killed by exposure to anhydrous ammonia after a tractor-trailer carrying thousands of gallons of the toxic substance crashed Friday, the local medical examiner’s office said.
Those killed in the incident were Kenneth Bryan, 34, and his two children – Rosie, 7, and Walker, 10 – as well as Danny J. Smith, 67, and Vasile Cricovan, 31, the coroner’s office said of Effingham County with a publication.
A preliminary investigation found that all five died as a result of the ammonia leak. Official autopsies will begin Monday, the office said.
A 15-member National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team, including motor vehicle transportation, hazardous materials and survival factors investigators, arrived at the Effingham County site on Sunday, according to NTSB spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris.
The sequence of events that led to the accident appears to have begun when someone attempted to overtake the tractor-trailer, the NTSB said at a media briefing Sunday.
“Preliminary information suggests that another vehicle may have been involved in an overtaking maneuver near the tanker truck. “The driver of the truck appears to have responded by pulling to the right,” board member Tom Chapman said. “The tanker truck left the road. After leaving the road, the truck overturned and the cargo tank was damaged.”
According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the truck had about 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia on board at the time of the accident Friday evening. The agency said initial estimates indicate more than half of that – about 4,000 gallons – was released.
Several people were hospitalized after the crash due to ammonia exposure, including five who had to be airlifted to local medical facilities, the coroner’s office said.
The accident occurred on US Highway 40 near Teutopolis, Illinois, about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis, Missouri. The NTSB is investigating whether the tanker truck was diverted onto the smaller highway due to an earlier accident on Interstate 70.
“As it rolled over, the tanker truck hit and exposed the top of the tank,” Chapman said. “As the momentum carried the tank forward, it came into contact with the hitch of the utility trailer. The towbar penetrated the cargo tank and left a hole approximately 15cm in diameter.”
About 500 people within a mile of the accident scene were evacuated from parts of Teutopolis after the accident but were allowed to return to their homes Saturday evening.
“Testing has shown that the threat from the anhydrous ammonia has disappeared,” Teutopolis Deputy Fire Chief Joe Holomy said in a news release Saturday evening. “We have informed residents that they may return home.”
According to Teutopolis Fire Chief Tim McMahon, crews worked overnight Friday into Saturday to repair part of the crack on the semi-truck – which slowed the leak but did not stop it completely.
The stricken tanker has since been drained, repaired and taken to a safe location for examination by the NTSB, the state emergency management agency said in a press release. Illinois State Police are also investigating the cause of the accident, they said.
Anhydrous ammonia “is essentially pure (over 99 percent) ammonia,” says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “’Anhydrous’ is a Greek word meaning ‘without water’; hence anhydrous ammonia in ammonia without water.”
According to OSHA, ammonia used in homes is a diluted water solution that contains 5 to 10 percent ammonia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ammonia in high concentrations can irritate and burn the skin, mouth, throat, lungs and eyes. Very high concentrations can also damage the lungs or cause death.
Symptoms of exposure to anhydrous ammonia include difficulty breathing; irritation of eyes, nose, or throat; and burns or blisters.