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A truck crash in Illinois kills 5 and forces temporary evacuation over ammonia leak

Emergency responders work the scene of semitruck crash in Teutopolis, Ill., on Saturday. Federal regulators confirmed they are reviewing the crash of a semitruck carrying a toxic substance in central Illinois, resulting in "multiple fatalities" and dangerous air conditions that prompted the evacuation of area residents.
NewsNation-WTWO via AP
Emergency responders work the scene of semitruck crash in Teutopolis, Ill., on Saturday. Federal regulators confirmed they are reviewing the crash of a semitruck carrying a toxic substance in central Illinois, resulting in "multiple fatalities" and dangerous air conditions that prompted the evacuation of area residents.

Updated October 1, 2023 at 9:33 PM ET

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The tanker truck crash in central Illinois that killed five people may have started when another vehicle tried to pass the chemical-laden truck, a federal transportation official said Sunday.

The tanker truck was carrying caustic anhydrous ammonia when it jackknifed Friday night, and hit a utility trailer parked just off the highway, according to Tom Chapman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. The tank carrying anhydrous ammonia hit the trailer hitch of the other vehicle, which punched a six-inch (15 centimeter) hole in the chemical container, Chapman said during news conference Sunday.

Chapman said the tanker truck's driver pulled to the right and ran off the road as it traveled west on U.S. 40 in Teutopolis, a small community about 110 miles (177 kilometers) northeast of St. Louis.

"It happened in a relatively short period of time," Chapman said. "This was a rapid sequence of events."

The accident occurred about 8:40 p.m. local time, Chapman said, revising the 9:25 p.m. time authorities originally gave. The crash spilled roughly half the truck's 7,500 gallon (28,390-liter) load. The rest was drained and moved to a "secure location" for the NTSB's investigation, authorities said late Saturday, as area residents were allowed to return to their homes after being evacuated.

Effingham County Coroner Kim Rhodes said the five dead included three from the same family: one adult and two children under 12. The other two were adult motorists from out of state, Rhodes said.

Additionally, five people were airlifted to hospitals, their conditions unknown.

Names of the victims were not released, nor would authorities discuss causes of death.

About 500 residents within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius of the crash site were evacuated after the accident, including northeastern parts of Teutopolis.

Emergency crews worked overnight after the accident on Friday trying to control the plume from the leak and struggled to get near the crash site. Private and federal environmental contractors were summoned to recommend a cleanup procedure in Teutopolis, a town of 1,600 people.

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," Effiningham County Sheriff Paul 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."

Although not strong, crews working overnight struggled against shifting wind.

"The wind changed three or four different times on us," said Tim McMahon, chief of the Teutopolis Fire Protection District. "That's another reason we got crews out in different places, reporting back on which way the wind's going."

Traffic, including the tanker, was pushed onto U.S. 40, which bisects Teutopolis, earlier Friday because of another truck crash on Interstate 70.

Phillip Hartke, 75, who lives in Teutopolis but farms with his son outside of town, said U.S. 40 was jammed after the I-70 closure. Hartke finished harvesting corn about 9:30 p.m. Driving home, as he neared the center of town, he could smell anhydrous ammonia. When he reached U.S. 40, emergency vehicles swarmed the area.

"Firefighters advised us right there: 'Evacuate to the west,'" Hartke said.

Hartke estimated 85% of Teutopolis was subject to the evacuation. He and his wife were staying with his son. Such familial ties should serve most evacuees well.

"'T-Town' is a tight-knit community," Hartke said. "Many people have sons and daughters, aunts and uncles within five or six miles of town."

Anhydrous ammonia is used by farmers to add nitrogen fertilizer to the soil and as a refrigerant in the cooling systems of large buildings such as warehouses and factories. According to the American Chemical Society, it is carried around the United States by pipeline, trucks and trains.

In 2019, dozens of people were sickened in suburban Chicago after the valves were left open on tanks of anhydrous ammonia being transported from a farm in Wisconsin to one in Illinois, creating a toxic gas cloud. Seven people were initially hospitalized in critical condition after a leaking anhydrous ammonia tank pulled by a tractor released the plume over Beach Park.

And in 2002, a train derailment released anhydrous ammonia in Minot, North Dakota, killing one man, and hundreds of other people reported injuries including burns and breathing problems.

"It's terrible. It's bad stuff if you are involved in breathing it, especially because it gets in your airways, in your lungs, and it burns," Kuhns said.

In addition to having a commercial driver's license, the person behind the wheel of a toxic-substance tanker must study further and successfully complete a test for a hazardous material endorsement, said Don Schaefer, CEO of the Mid-West Truckers Association.

"Once you get that endorsement, there are no restrictions — unless otherwise posted — on hauling hazardous materials on a public highway," Schaefer said. "But you're subject to higher scrutiny."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press