By Margie Wuebker
Four people remain hospitalized following an anhydrous ammonia leak early this morning at a Mercer Landmark site near Burkettsville. They were among 14 people transported to Mercer County Community Hospital in Coldwater with respiratory symptoms and eye irritation.
The leak apparently resulted from an attempted theft of the toxic chemical that is used not only for agricultural purposes but in the production of methamphetamine.
Admitted for observation were Mercer County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Heinl, Burkettsville Fire Chief Alan Siefring and two semitrailer drivers, one of them reportedly employed by Cooper Foods. The names of the drivers were not available from hospital sources due to patient privacy regulations.
Using a cell phone, one of the drivers contacted Mercer County 911 at 3:01 a.m. to report heavy smoke coming from the fertilizer business along Ohio 118, southeast of Burkettsville, in Darke County.
The northbound trucker reportedly drove through the smoke and then pulled his rig over in a clear area to call. Heinl, who is a member of the Coldwater unit of Mercer County Emergency Medical Services and the Coldwater Fire Department, realized the toxic nature of the smoky fog coming from the property containing two large anhydrous ammonia storage units and 24 smaller nurse tanks.
A southbound semitrailer approached the scene and Heinl directed him to keep the windows rolled up and to back toward Watkins Road. The wind picked up and shifted at that point, blowing the chemical in their direction.
"The first trucker came running in my direction when the wind shifted," Heinl told The Daily Standard from his hospital room. "It looked like he was being pursued by a wave of dense fog."
The deputy and the unidentifed man were quickly enveloped as they ran toward the flashing lights of the sheriff's cruiser."
"It seemed like I was ready to collapse to my knees," Heinl said. "It was hard to breathe. That stuff hits you like a brick wall."
The deputy drove through the fog, praying he did not strike firefighters responding to the scene.
He also knew a nearby guardrail would propel him back to the pavement if the cruiser left the road.
"The trucker needed help and I needed help," Heinl said. "I accelerated to get out of there and visibility was terrible."
Mike Gaerke, assistant Burkettsville fire chief, went immediately to the scene and radioed back to fellow firefighters that it appeared to be a relatively small leak with winds at 2 miles per hour.
"The leak apparently increased and then the wind picked up," Siefring said. "Every scene we respond to is different and then you always have to deal with Mother Nature."
With Ohio 319 closed due to a bridge construction project, firefighters headed east on Watkins Road before turning right onto Ohio 118. They were approaching the Landmark property when the wind blew anhydrous ammonia their way.
Firefighters in protective gear faced the challenge of finding one leaking tank in a fenced-in area filled with tanks. Stopping the leak involved shutting an open valve on am 850-gallon nurse tank. The culprits left behind hose and propane cylinders which were taken into evidence. The leak apparently developed when the valve was opened and tape connecting large and small hosing to a propane tank came apart.
"We faced considerable obstacles," Siefring explained. "It was hard to keep driving because you couldn't see anything because of the heavy fog and because your eyes burned. And then finding the one tank in the midst of so many took some time."
Heinl believes the leak resulted from an apparent theft gone bad.
"Criminals don't know how nasty this stuff can be," the deputy added. "Sooner or later we are going to find a bad guy lying dead near an anhydrous tank. This time it was the innocent people who suffered."
Siefring wondered aloud regarding how the culprits fared, adding "I know the discomfort we experienced. Somebody out there has to be hurting, too."
The area was bathed in flashing lights as Burkettsville and St. Henry fire trucks arrived on the scene. Ambulances from St. Henry and Coldwater also responded to transport firefighters and others complaining of respiratory problems and eye irritation to the hospital. No one suffered direct contact burns.
Ken Obringer, hospital public relations officer, reported seven employees were called to help in the emergency room. Additional staff members, including nurses and respirtatory therapists, came from other parts of the hospital to assist.
Doctors recommended the four men be hospitalized for observation because anhydrous ammonia exposure can cause serious respiratory complications, including pneumonia.
Darke County Sheriff's Capt. Steve Stebbins reported deputies continue to investigate the apparent theft. There have been no similar incidents in recent weeks, however several occurred in the past.
Heinl was on routine patrol May 12 when he spotted suspicious activity at a Mercer Landmark plant along Burkettsville-St. Henry Road, southwest of Coldwater. A total of five people now face charges in the wake of an investigation that turned up a marijuana grow room as well as a methamphetamine lab at two locations near St. Anthony.