Ammonia spilling from a farm tractor in Beach Park early Thursday sent at least 37 people to hospitals, including seven who were reported to be in critical condition around noon.
The spill began about 4:30 a.m. in the area of Green Bay Road and 29th Street, according to Sgt. Christopher Covelli, a spokesman for the Lake County sheriff’s office.
Investigators think a tractor was towing a pair of 2-ton tanks containing anhydrous ammonia when they began to leak, and Covelli said investigators do not believe the vehicle was involved in a traffic collision.
“Basically it caused the substance to go airborne,” Covelli said, “which released the plume into the air, which is extremely dangerous.”
That substance can cause “unconsciousness, and at worst case even death,” Covelli said.
According to Covelli, among those injured were emergency personnel responding to the scene.
“Deputies arrived on the scene — our first responding deputies — (and they) exited their vehicles to try to aid the individuals who were at the scene, including individuals that were lying on the ground,” Covelli said. “The deputies were immediately overcome by the fumes that were in the air.
“Those deputies had to retreat and get out of the area. Both of them were subsequently transported to a local hospital, treated and released.”
Covelli added that a total of 37 people were transported to hospitals “due to breathing in these toxic fumes. (Of) those 37, there are seven that are in critical condition with (what is) considered to be life-threatening injuries.”
Pamela Burnett, 57, said she was driving to her job at a grocery store in Kenosha when she went through the cloud of toxic gas.
Burnett, an unincorporated Warren Township resident, said she was on Green Bay Road when she saw the car ahead of her brake, and she started to slow down. She added that she could see a cloud, but she wasn’t sure if it was smoke or dust from someone peeling out on 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,” she said, but it was too late.
“It wasn’t smoke. I thought to myself this is some kind of chemical,” Burnett added. “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.’”
Speaking to a group of media assembled near the scene, Burnett said she pulled off the road while “spitting up and coughing” and called 911. She added that she saw a man laying on the roadway nearby.
Burnett was transported to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, and she said a police officer was also going to get treated.
Covelli said that a total of 11 firefighters and three police officers were transported for treatment, including a firefighter/EMT from the Newport Township Fire Protection District who was in critical condition.
Covelli said there were a total of 11 firefighters transported and three police officers. The rest of the victims were determined to have “non-life-threatening” conditions and several dozen others had been evaluated by paramedics but not transported, he said.
The incident began around 4:30 a.m. and a sheriff’s office sergeant and deputy responded to a report of a vehicle fire . Instead they encountered a toxic gas forming like “smoke” in the area of Green Bay Road and 29th Street.
“The sergeant and deputy retreated, as the chemical was overpowering,” said Covelli.
“There were several victims at the scene who were rescued by initial responding fire personnel,” he said, including Burnett who was on her way to work.
“They are going to be Ok,” he said of the officers, “but obviously it was very scary for them,” he said Covelli said many of those transported were experiencing “serious difficulties breathing” and they totaled 37 as of around 11 a.m., he said.
Preliminary information shows a tractor was towing containers holding anhydrous ammonia. The containers leaked as the tractor was traveling on Green Bay Road in the area of 29th Street. This caused toxic plumes of the chemical to be released into the air.
That substance can cause “unconsciousness, and at worse case even death,” Covelli said.
Mike Galllo, Lake Forest Fire Department Division Chief, said that that it appears a value failed that was hooked up to the two containers being pulled by a farmer’s tractor. The driver of the tractor has not been identified by name yet.
Several schools were closed and a one mile perimeter was set up and people were told shelter in place by closing windows and turning off their heating or air conditioning and to stay inside. Around 10 a.m. the shelter in place call was lifted.
Terence Jackson of Kenosha is the manager of a 7-Eleven on the corner of York House and Green Bay roads, located about 4 miles away from where the spill happened. It wasn’t until he was approaching 21st St. in Zion that he said he got a clue that something was wrong as ambulances, police cars and firetrucks began to zoom by him before 5:30 a.m., he said.
“I saw lights everywhere and I thought it was accident,” Jackson said.
He re-routed and got to work, but by 6:30 a.m. he said he started to get a headache, sore throat and was a little nauseated.
“I wasn’t feeling that way when I left home,” Jackson said. “Maybe I’ll get checked out but I don’t know.”
By 9:30 a.m. first responders from different stations were still going door-to-door in a subdivision just a mile away from where the accident occurred. They were asking whether people had their windows open early in the morning and whether they felt OK.
“I had my windows open the night before but not last night, thank God,” said Annalisa Iskalis, who lives in the subdivision off Green Bay Road in Beach Park just a little over a mile from where the spill happened.
Iskalis said she heard police out on the street with a megaphone before 5 a.m. but couldn’t make out what they were saying as she was still waking up. She received a robocall shortly after and found out what had happened, she said.
Her 10-year-old daughter attends St Patrick’s School in Wadsworth, which didn’t close, but Iskalis made the decision to still keep her home, she said.
“I just felt better having all of us stay indoors because I didn’t want to drive through anything dangerous,” Iskalis said. “It’s been a scary start to the day.”
Robert Turner heard news of the spill near his home in Beach Park from his sister who watched a report on TV and called him to make sure he was safe, he said. Turner drives a school bus for Lake Forest Elementary School District 67 and immediately called his boss to say he wouldn’t be going to work due to the chemical spill just two blocks from his home.
“I’m 65 years old,” Turner said. “At that age, you don’t recover as much as when you’re younger, so I don’t take chances with my health.”
Turner said it wasn’t until police went to his door after 9:30 a.m. that he was able to take his 13-year-old Doberman out to relieve himself.
“It was stressful on him but it had to be done that way,” Turner said.
Patricia Bidzinski of Beach Park said she was startled by a state trooper who called her over to his squad car shortly before 5:30 a.m. while she was walking her puppy near her home.
“He said, ‘You need to go inside. There’s a hazard nearby,’” Bidzinski said.
Shortly after, Bidzinski looked out her windows and saw some of her neighbors leaving and thought she should too, but in the end decided to just stay put, she said.
“I saw geese and birds in the pond behind my townhome and they looked fine,” Bidzinski said. “I told my boyfriend we should be fine just staying inside, but I’m not going to lie, it was scary.”
Gallo, of the fire department, said they upped it to a five alarm life safety call to bring in ambulances and then they asked Cook County to pull a box alarm to send more ambulances.
There were 20 different departments responding to the call and included 140 personnel, he said. Firefighters in full hazardous material gear were on the scene and personnel had sprayed water on the containers to reduce the gas escaping.
“It was very difficult trying to contain the gas,” he said. By 11 a.m. there was still a quarter mile perimeter set up and Gallo said that anyone in the area who are having inhalation problems should call 911 and they will be transported, he said.
Burnett said she was feeling Ok, except for the occasional cough. She was actually worried about the other people after she was told some people were in crucial condition.
“I just hope the other are going to be Ok,” she said.
Covelli added that one of those critically injured was a firefighter. A total of 11 firefighters transported for treatment. Three police officers were treated and released.Victims were transported to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Vista East Medical Center in Waukegan. St. Catherine Hospital in Kenosha, Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital and the Naval Station Great Lakes Hospital.
As of just before 8:30, there had been “31 transports to hospitals due to inhalation issues,” according to the sheriff’s office. “At this point, all transports are non-life-threatening.” Authorities said about 9 a.m. that the total transported had grown to 32, including two sheriff’s deputies and a Zion police officer.
More than a dozen others had been evaluated by paramedics but not transported. Covelli said many of those transported were experiencing “serious difficulties breathing.”
“Do not get close to the area! Residents in a 1-mile radius, stay inside, windows closed,” the agency tweeted.
Covelli said sheriff’s deputies originally were called to the area for a report of a vehicle fire.
“As deputies exited their squads, they noticed a large plume of smoke, it appeared to be. Deputies were immediately overcome by the toxicity of that plume, so they had to retreat,” Covelli said.
During a 9 a.m. news conference, Covelli said the effects hit a deputy and a sergeant when they exited their vehicle, and they had to be treated for exposure to the chemical.
“There were several victims at the scene who were rescued by initial responding fire personnel,” he wrote in a news release. Most of those who were taken to area hospitals for treatment were considered to be in stable-but-serious condition.
Covelli was joined at the news conference by Mike Gallo, a division chief with the Lake Forest Fire Department, which was part of a mutual aid response that included 20 to 25 fire departments helping with the call.
Gallo said farmers often use the chemical to help aerate soil, and as of 9 a.m. both of the tanks had been emptied of the ammonia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas that can cause breathing difficulties, burns, blisters and is fatal if breathed in high concentrations.
All Beach Park District 3 schools will be closed Thursday, officials from the district tweeted.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office also tweeted Zion-Benton High School would be closed and Covelli said Prairie Trail School in nearby Wadsworth also is closed.
Officials had been at the location all morning, working to control the spread of the chemical, and anyone within a mile radius of the overturned vehicle had been asked to “shelter in place,” meaning stay inside their homes with windows closed, Covelli said. Officials also suggested that heating and cooling systems remain off in homes near the spill site, to avoid pulling contaminated air into the home.
At 9:30 a.m., Covelli said the order to shelter in place was scheduled to be lifted at 10 a.m., but door-to-door checks, which began about 8:15 a.m. as a means to ensure no one was suffering from a medical emergency inside homes closest to the spill, would continue for the next two to three hours.