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A tanker crash, a poison plume and five lives lost: Horror in the heart of American farmland

A perfect storm of events last Friday led to a massive gas spill in rural Illinois, which resulted in five deaths and five more victims airlifted to area hospitals. Sheila Flynn details the terror brought on by the night’s disaster — and small communities’ tough questions as loved ones continue to fight for their lives

Friday 09 February 2024 08:42 GMT
<p>Teutopolis father Kenneth Bryan, 34, and his children Rosie, 7, and Walker, 10, were killed after exposure to anyhydrous ammonia following the tanker crash, according to a preliminary coroner’s report</p>

Teutopolis father Kenneth Bryan, 34, and his children Rosie, 7, and Walker, 10, were killed after exposure to anyhydrous ammonia following the tanker crash, according to a preliminary coroner’s report

There was more traffic than usual driving by the Elmores’ home in Illinois’s farming heartland last Friday night. An earlier crash on nearby I-70 had diverted cars and trucks onto the single-lane highway abutting their driveway while the family was out of town – but their longtime friend and housemate, Kenneth Bryan, had just returned home with his young son, Walker, 10, and daughter, Rosie, 7.

Driving along US-40 that night were a myriad of motorists who probably never would have been there if not for the diversion. Four University of Missouri freshmen were travelling to a swim meet against Ohio State. The Rev. Dan J. Smith, a Missouri pastor, was returning home from a football game in Illinois with a friend. Vasile Cricovan, a 31-year-old Moldovan immigrant living in Ohio, was driving his truck along the same stretch of road. And another truck driver navigated a tanker carrying 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia.

And then, without warning, there was a crash, followed by a plume of gas that looked like fog and a strong smell in the air.

In an instant, a tragic confluence of events led to a freak incident that extinguished five lives — Mr Smith, Mr Cricovan and Mr Bryan and his children — and left a half-dozen others fighting for theirs.

The scenes in Effingham County, which lies in the south-central part of the state, were near-apocalyptic after the 8.40pm crash. From interviewing on-the-ground witnesses, listening to press conferences and reading regional reports, The Independent has pieced together the terrifying scene, which has left locals and grieving families questioning who is to blame.

Emergency responders set up a staging area near Teutopolis High School on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Teutopolis, Illinois

Many of the out-of-state motorists may not have initially known what was happening as the gas filled the air, says Teutopolis Fire Chief Tim McMahon, who’s lived in the area all of his 58 years and has headed the fire department for 20. His vehicle was one of the first to head out when the call about a tanker rollover came in.

McMahon was only about a quarter-mile from the crash site when he began to notice a slight but distinctive smell from the cabin of his truck.

“And this being a farming community, I was pretty sure it was anhydrous [ammonia]. It was just making me a little bit short of breath even,” the fire chief said.

“You could mistake it for fog, if your headlights were just right.”

Teutopolis Fire Chief Tim McMahon

Anhydrous ammonia is commonly used in farming as a fertiliser and some other purposes. Exposure in high concentration can be disastrous for humans, with the gas causing burning, inflammation and respiratory failure. As Chief McMahon described, it has a distinct smell, and farming communities are well aware of its effects, with many enterprises incorporating training around the handling and use of the substance.

McMahon immediately turned around and radioed his colleagues, telling them to “back out, stay out,” so first responders could suit up in appropriate gear and call in specialist teams.

“Some of the problem was the traffic that was going through wasn’t all local,” he said. “Any farmer probably recognizes that smell ... but the average person probably wouldn’t know ... that it was anhydrous.”

The way the toxic plumes quickly fill the air – “you could mistake it for fog, if your headlights were just right,” Chief McMahon said.

It was a six-inch hole that released the gas. According to a preliminary investigation, authorities believe a dark-coloured vehicle may have attempted to pass the tanker carrying anhydrous ammonia as both vehicles travelled westbound on US-40 near the 1,700-person village of Teutopolis. After releasing footage, Illinois authorities said Thursday they had located the driver and vehicle “with information provided by the community” but added no further details.

Jacob Boemker, 24, was behind the tanker truck’s wheel when it veered off the road. He was about 30 miles away from the headquarters of Prairie Land Transport Ltd, his family’s trucking company in Brownstown, Ill.

Illinois authorities released footage of a dark-colored vehicle believed to have been involved in the accident, saying Thursday they’d located the vehicle and driver ‘with information provided by the community'

Boemker “appears to have reacted by pulling to the right,” NTSB member Tom Chapman said Sunday at a press conference. Then the tanker left the road, jackknifed and rolled into a ditch — where it collided with a trailer that was parked there.

“As momentum carried the tank forward, it came into contact with the hitch on the utility trailer,” Mr Chapman said. “That hitch punctured the cargo tank, leaving a hole approximately six inches in diameter.”

That released the anhydrous ammonia, which can kill quickly. One of the victims, Mr Cricovan, “braked and got out of his truck and inhaled toxic vapors, after which he had a respiratory failure,” according to a GoFundMe appeal set up by his wife.

Terrie Tudor, 61, was critically injured while her companion, the Rev. Smith, was fatally exposed to the fumes, as were Mr Bryan and his children, according to the preliminary coroner’s report.

“They had gotten home just two minutes before the accident happened,” close friend Megan Elmore, whose home Mr Bryan had been living in, told WTWO. “And him and his kids were all outside in the driveway when the initial plume of anhydrous came through.”

Others on the road, meanwhile, were scrambling to survive.

The members of Mizzou Swim Club “immediately got out of the car and ran in an attempt to protect themselves from the harmful gas spilling out into the air,” according to a GoFundMe set up for the students by a fellow swim club member. “As they all ran in different directions they ended up falling into ditches on the side of the road where they remained until being found by EMS.”

The injured students were John Costello, 19, of Olathe, Kansas; Anja Dangelmaier, 18, of Dallas, Texas; Weston Hemmerling, 18, of Kansas City, Kansas; and Sarah Tague, 18, of Lake Elmo, Minnesota.

“Weston was found by EMS first and rushed to the hospital; before the others were found EMS had to wait for hazmat teams to show as the chemical cloud was too strong and dangerous,” the GoFundMe continued.

The smell of anhydrous ammonia, sounds of sirens and whirring helicopter blades filled the air as scores of area residents were being evacuated throughout Effingham County. Authorities also put out a reverse 911 call to alert residents, aided by social media and word of mouth, Mr McMahon said.

“If you live in Teutopolis — evacuate now! Anhydrous ammonia tanker rolled over and spilled,” one Effingham County resident posted on Facebook, directing residents to a local elementary school.

David Repking, the mayor of Teutopolis and a grandfather of 12, lives within a half-mile of the accident site and described the unfolding of events.

“Nobody knew what was going on until they sent out the blast from the county that gave directions of who in the area had to evacuate ... we got out of there,” he told The Independent on Thursday.

He says that the gas odor was “pretty strong” as he and his wife joined the approximately 500 people told to leave. “We didn’t get a block down the road and you could smell it already — and we were headed away from it.”

The hazmat teams were called in from nearby Charleston and Mattoon, 40 and 28 miles away, respectively. Mattoon Fire Chief Jeff Hilligoss was at the Coles County Clash football game when he received a call about the crash at 9.20 pm, he told the Journal Gazette & Times-Courier. Then he and Charleston Fire Chief Steve Bennett began gathering firefighters from the MABAS Division 26 Regional Hazardous Materials Team hosted by the Charleston department. (MABAS, which stands for Mutual Aid Box Alarm Systems, in partnership with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, provides specialised response teams, such as hazmat and underwater recovery.)

“By 10 pm, we were on the road headed to T Town,” Chief Hilligoss told the Journal Gazette & Times-Courier. “At 11.15 pm, we were putting a patch on the tanker.”

Meanwhile, five of the victims — three Missouri swimmers, the tanker driver and Ms Tudor — were airlifted to area hospitals; Mr Hemmerling and at least one other were transported by ambulance.

Most residents relocated to area hotels or to stay with friends and relatives. In addition, a nearby middle school opened up its cafeteria as a temporary shelter, Chief McMahon said. The evacuation order remained in place until late Saturday as authorities completed cleanup efforts.

Mizzou Swim Club member Sarah Tague, from Minnesota, was airlifted from the accident site and spent her 18th birthday Saturday in the hospital

Shocked families, meanwhile, were rushing to their loved ones’ bedsides from out of state. Michelle and Michael Tague travelled from Minnesota to be in the ICU with their daughter, who was on a ventilator at an Illinois hospital on Saturday. It was her 18th birthday, according to a GoFundMe set up for the family.

“She has swelling and irritation to her lungs, throat, skin and eyes,” the appeal said. “Her friends are experiencing similar issues with their lungs, eyes and skin. It is hard to say how long the recovery will be, but it is certain that it will take time.”

Other friends and relatives began receiving the devastating news. At St Peter’s United Church of Christ in New Haven, Missouri, congregants had noticed the Rev. Smith had not been at the parsonage on Friday but thought perhaps the soft-spoken pastor had gone out for one of his usual beloved motorcycle rides — until word spread Saturday that he’d been involved in a horrific incident in Illinois.

By then, church council member Dorothy Schowe told The Independent, “We knew that the motorcycle was here; the car was gone, so we knew the car was what was involved. But we didn’t know until Sunday morning that he had been with a friend and that she was in the hospital.”

The Rev. Smith had joined the congregation in February 2022 as interim minister and became installed as pastor just this past June, she says.Early in his tenure at the church, he’d left an impression by compassionately handling several funerals after the sudden deaths of several community members.

Now a shocked congregation is planning a sudden memorial for him.

The Bryan family funerals were held on Friday for Kenneth, Rosie and Walker. The doting father, 34, had worked as a mechanic, loved large trucks and had tried life on the road before pursuing a career as an operator at American Fiber Network because it allowed him to be home with his children more, coworker Shelbi Willenborg told the Effingham Daily News.

Rev. Dan J Smith had been installed in June as pastor of St Peter’s United Church of Christ in New Haven, Missouri. He was killed Friday while traveling home from a football game in Illinois with a friend

A friend of Jordan Elmore since grade school, Mr Bryan had lived in the couple’s upstairs bedroom for about eight years and had his children every other weekend, Ms Elmore told WTWO. The children are survived by their mother, Macy Reed, of Beecher City.

“Words cannot begin to explain the pain of this loss,” Ms Elmore wrote on Instagram this week. “Kenny, Walker, Rose ... this just can’t be possible. I hope you three knew just how much you meant to us. We love you all. Our house was full with you in it.”

In Ohio and Moldova, loved ones were mourning father-of-two Mr Cricovan, who had celebrated his seventh anniversary with his wife in July. Changing her Facebook profile to a black and white photo of the two, she wrote this week: “Fly smoothly with the angels my love, I’m so sorry that you left us so early.”

A visitation will be held in Ohio on Monday, with a funeral and internment to be held in Moldova for Mr Cricovan, according to his obituary.

Meanwhile, as families grieve, many are demanding answers. A final NTSB report is expected to take up to two years, with other agencies investigating the crash, as well. There is also frustration because Illinois authorities have released no further information about the driver and vehicle they located which may have been involved in the crash.

Locally, questions were being asked about the road conditions which led to the tanker being on US-40 in the first place. Teutopolis native and State Rep. Andy Niemerg told the Effingham Daily News that he’d been complaining about transport issues for months.

“There’s a lot of frustration about the construction on I-70,” he said Saturday. “There has been for several months. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on, trying to alleviate. And unfortunately, what I’m hearing from a lot of people is, ‘This is something that we saw coming.’”

“When there’s an accident, everybody gets displaced and comes here on 40, right through Teutopolis, and all the way through to Indiana,” said Niemerg. “So, from Effingham to Indiana, there’s been accident after accident after accident this summer as a result of this construction. And unfortunately, now we see this accident here in Teutopolis with the town being displaced. What’s really awful is we have loss of life.”

NTSB official Tom Chapman, answering questions at the Sunday conference, said that hazmat routing will be one of the things that is examined.

“I don’t know the specifics of what the regulations might be, but we will be examining that, and we’ll be looking to see the extent to which that may have been a factor in this crash,” he said, adding: “Again — too early for us to say one way or another.”

As communities grieve and wait for answers, however, they are also rallying to support recovery efforts and victim families. A fundraiser was held Thursday in Teutopolis for the Elmores, who lost all their livestock and have been indefinitely displaced. The Kenny Bryan Memorial Ride was scheduled for Saturday, ending at American Fiber Network and including live music and raffles.

Teutopolis Mayor Repking noted how the tight-knit community pulled together even in the first hours after the crash. When he visited the staging area on Saturday, he told The Independent, “I kind of got choked up” seeing the number of emergency personnel from other departments.

“It was just incredible,” he said, adding: “When these guys got the call, all they knew is that there was a tanker truck; they didn’t know what was in it. And they go out there and all of a sudden this thing is ruptured, and so they’ve got to get their protective gear on.”

Repking spoke with the mother of one of the EMT’s from the next town over who attended the scene.  “He said this is the worst shift he’s ever had in 15 years,” Repking said.

And Teutopolis Fire Chief McMahon said he’s been checking in on his department members “pretty much daily.”

“I’ve been chief here for 20 years, and I’ve never seen nothing like it,” he said, “and hope we never do experience it again.”

The community was exhausted and emotional after Friday’s fatal sequence of events that came together to prove “just right” for disaster, he said.

“The timing was just not good for everything involved,” he said of the victims. “It was just an unusual situation – just a tragic event.”

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