TEUTOPOLIS, Ill. (WCIA) — A crash in Teutopolis Friday evening turned out to be far more serious than it originally appeared. Several vehicles crashed, including a truck carrying thousands of gallons of anhydrous ammonia. The ammonia started leaking out of the trailer and evaporated into a toxic plume of gas.
Five people, including two children, are confirmed dead and five others were airlifted from the scene, seriously hurt. Everyone within a one-mile radius of the scene, including half of Teutopolis, had to be evacuated.
Everything happened very quickly. When Teutopolis Fire Chief Tim McMahon sent his volunteer firefighters to the crash on U.S. Route 40, he didn’t know the full scope of the crash. As soon as they pulled up, the firefighters felt the gas and immediately retreated.
“We had to back out immediately, as well as some of the cars that was on Route 40,” McMahon said. “They were all feeling the effects of it.”
The plume of anhydrous ammonia expanded and was carried by the wind toward Teutopolis. Emergency crews walked up and down the roads and through houses, decked out in full gear and gas masks, helping people escape the gas.
“We did go house to house,” McMahon said. “And it’s good thing.”
Some people left so quickly that they left behind medicine and even pets, and they still haven’t been allowed to return. They tried to find safe havens, including the Fire Hall, St. Anthony Grade School in Effingham or family members’ homes.
Retired Teutopolis firefighter Bill Brumleve was at the Fire Hall in town when the sirens sounded. He’s lived in town for 69 years, and to see it empty on Saturday was chilling.
“It was just so quiet in town today,” Brumleve said “It’s kind of an eerie feeling. It’s not good.
He and his fellow retired firefighters stayed behind to help the evacuees. He said there were people from all across the country coming in. They ended up on Route 40 after being rerouted from I-70, where a three-semi crash left the highway closed.
Brumleve spent 20 years in the Teutopolis Fire Department, and he said he’s never seen anything like this.
State Representative Adam Niemerg grew up in Teutopolis and still lives there. He didn’t need to be evacuated, but his extended family did. He spoke with many who evacuated and said while panic and confusion were rampant, he saw many who were frustrated.
Route 40 has seen increased traffic, especially semi-trucks, due to road construction on Interstate 70 between Effingham and Montrose.
“Everything being diverted to 40, we’ve been dealing with this for months in Teutopolis. And now we have this happen,” he said. “So it’s a little bit of an emotional day. It’s tough to see. My hometown, my office is right here.”
Lawmakers told WCIA they have had conversations with IDOT about the construction on I-70, and they plan to have serious conversations with the state’s plan for going forward.
A 15-person team from the National Transportation Safety Board is coming to Teutopolis to assess the damage. They’ll also decide if they need to open an investigation into the crash and exactly what happened.
Firefighters from across Central Illinois, meanwhile, have been on the scene since Friday night and throughout Saturday, working around the clock to stop the leak and clean up the toxic plume of gas. None have been hurt since arriving on the scene and the firefighters that came into contact with the gas upon arrival were able to recover quickly upon retreating.