Chemical spill in Beach Park sends 37 to hospitals, 7 remain in critical condition

BEACH PARK, Ill. — A dangerous gas cloud spreading from a chemical spill in Beach Park, IL Thursday morning forced residents to shelter in place and sent 37 people to area hospitals, including seven who remain in critical condition.

Around 4:45 a.m. Thursday, a farm tractor was pulling a pair of two-ton tanks of anhydrous ammonia near Green Bay Road and 29th Street in Beach Park when the tanks started to leak, creating a dangerous plume.

According to the CDC, anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas used as an agricultural fertilizer and industrial refrigerant. It gives off "pungent, suffocating fumes," that can cause eye and throat irritation, chest pains, pulmonary swelling and even burns. It can be fatal if inhaled at high concentrations.

Three people were found unconscious at the scene by first responders, and firefighters and police officers arriving at the scene were injured by the gas.

“The first responders, when they exited their vehicles and tried to aid the individuals at the scene including individuals that were lying on the ground, the deputies were immediately overcome by the fumes in the air,” said Sgt. Chris Covelli of the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office issued a warning just before 5 a.m., and residents within a one-mile radius of the spill were told to stay inside, keep their windows shut and turn their HVACs off.

About two dozen law enforcement agencies responded to the leak. Emergency crews went door-to-door within a quarter-mile of the scene, checking homes, evaluating and treating about a dozen residents during their search. The spill was contained within a few hours after the tank emptied, and authorities are waiting to confirm the cloud has dissipated. The shelter in place lasted until 10 a.m.

All Beach Park District #3 Schools were closed Thursday due to the spill. Zion-Benton Township High School, New Tech HS at Zion-Benton East, Zion Elementary Dist. 6 and Prairie Trail School in Wadsworth were also closed.

In total, 37 people including 11 firefighters and three police officers were sent to the hospital. Most of those injured suffered breathing problems, and were treated and released. Seven people, including a firefighter, are in critical but stable condition.

It is unknown why the anhydrous ammonia was being transported in the dark, or if the driver of the tractor had followed the proper safety precautions. An investigation is underway.

EPA officials were out testing the air and ground quality in the area Thursday afternoon.

Residents describe "scary" scene, worry for injured loved ones

Sylvia Cruz says she felt a burning in her throat Thursday morning as she was driving near the site of the chemical spill. Overcome by the toxic fumes, Cruz and her children were rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

“It was very scary fearing for the life of my kids,” Cruz said.

Beach Park resident Ana Garza's son Juan is among those who remain critically injured Thursday evening. She said when they heard the noise from outside, they thought there was a fire nearby.

"We hear our neighbors asking for help," Garza said. "We tried to open the door, it was so bad it burns you."

Garza and her granddaughters were released from the hospital and returned home, although she said her chest still hurts in the morning. Juan is expected to remain in the hospital for the next few days.

Antonio Ellis said he's deeply worried about his father-in-law Jerone Lawson, who remains heavily sedated at Vista Medical Center East with a breathing tube down his throat.

“Patients that had inhaled the chemicals had significant swelling to their vocal cords and their upper airways. We needed to intervene with mechanical ventilation,” said Dr. Kenji Oyasu, Systems Medical Director at  East.

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