A devastating disaster unfolded in Effingham County, Illinois, on Friday night when a semi-truck carrying thousands of gallons of anhydrous ammonia crashed, leaving at least five people dead and a community in turmoil.
Two children are among those confirmed dead as authorities fail to contain anhydrous ammonia leaking from the tanker in the wake of the crash.
The incident, which occurred on US Highway 40, near Teutopolis, led to a massive evacuation and prompted a hazardous materials response.
According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), the semi-truck was transporting approximately 7,500 gallons of the highly toxic substance when the accident happened.
Preliminary estimates suggest that over half of this hazardous cargo, approximately 4,000 gallons, was released into the environment.
“This devastating incident serves as a stark reminder of the potential hazards associated with transporting dangerous chemicals,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey environmentalist. “It is also a vivid reminder that public officials still do not recognize the importance of stringent safety measures to protect both the public and the environment.”
McCormick said the Covid-19 pandemic exposed our inability to mount and sustain comprehensive public health responses that control emerging infectious disease outbreaks, and the Illinois incident revealed the government’s inefficiency in addressing environmental hazards.
Effingham County Sheriff Paul Kuhns described the scene as “large and complicated.” Multiple injuries were reported, with at least five individuals airlifted to local hospitals for treatment.
Among the dead were two children, along with an adult from the same family. Another victim was from Missouri, and the fifth victim was identified as the semi-truck driver from Ohio, who was passing by the crash scene.
Emergency crews rushed to the scene to contain the leak, but the situation remained perilous throughout the night. Effingham County Fire Chief Tim McMahon stated that although efforts were made to patch up the ruptured semi-truck, the leak persisted, leading to the evacuation of residents within an estimated one-mile radius of the crash, including parts of Teutopolis.
Anhydrous ammonia, known for its extreme toxicity, can cause severe health hazards if not handled safely. Exposure to high levels of ammonia can irritate and burn the skin, eyes, throat, lungs, and mouth, potentially leading to respiratory injuries or even death.
Effingham County, with an approximate population of 34,000, is located about two hours south of the state capital, Springfield. The tragedy disrupted the lives of countless residents who were evacuated from their homes.
Efforts are now underway to investigate the cause of the accident, with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sending a team to assess the situation. The IEPA has reported that the evacuation orders in Teutopolis will remain in effect as the crashed tanker still contains a significant amount of ammonia and remains at the accident site.
Illinois Emergency Management Agency and Office of Homeland Security Deputy Director of Emergency Management Clayton Kuetemeyer expressed condolences, saying, “We offer our deepest sympathies to all those affected by the accident and chemical spill.”
The incident compounded the challenges for local authorities, as an earlier crash on Interstate 70 had already rerouted traffic onto US Highway 40, which included the ill-fated semi-truck carrying the anhydrous ammonia.
Effingham County Sheriff Paul Kuhns emphasized the importance of patience among the affected residents, understanding the frustration caused by the evacuation and investigation. “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,” Kuhns said.