By Margie Wuebker
The four people hospitalized in the wake of an anhydrous leak early Wednesday morning at a Mercer Landmark site near Burkettsville all will be home later today.
The leak, spurred by shifting winds, sent a total of 14 people to Mercer County Community Hospital. They included firefighters as well as some residents who reportedly were evacuated from nearby homes. The leak apparently resulted from an attempted theft of the toxic chemical used not only for agriculture purposes but in the production of methamphetamine.
Mercer County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Heinl and an unidentified truck driver had been released by 9:30 a.m. today. Another unidentified truck driver is awaiting results of a chest x-ray prior to his release and Burkettsville Fire Chief Alan Siefring expects to go home later today.
Eye, nose and chest
The 10 remaining people, transported by rescue units from St. Henry and Coldwater, were released following emergency room treatment. Their complaints ranged from eye and nose irritation to chest discomfort. One of the truck drivers contacted Mercer County 911 by cell phone to report seeing "a lot of smoke" coming from the fertilizer business along Ohio 118, east of Burkettsville, in Darke County. The smoke turned out to be anhydrous ammonia vapors.
Heinl responded to the 3:01 a.m. call as did firefighters from Burkettsville and St. Henry, four ambulances and Darke County Sheriff's deputies.
Problems developed when the calm wind shifted sending a dangerous fog northward into an area that had been considered a safe zone. The wind shift occurred just as firefighters were arriving at the scene.
The fenced property contained two large storage tanks as well as 24 smaller "nurse" tanks each capable of holding around 850 gallons of the popular fertilizer. Firefighters in protective garb had to search for the right tank and then shut the valve to contain the problem.
Jerry "Buck" Siefring, manager of the Landmark facility, told The Daily Standard the culprits had fastened a spliced hose leading from a nurse tank to a propane cylinder similar to those used on gas-fired grills. The tape used to hold the splices apparently gave way after coming in contact with the clear liquid that registers a temperature of minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
The culprits apparently fled the scene in a hurry, leaving behind the items.
Anhydrous ammonia provides nitrogen for plant growth, making it a widely used agricultural fertilizer. The mixture of nitrogen and hydrogen rapidly combines when it comes into contact with any kind of moisture -- be it dampness in the soil or the natural moisture of eyes and nasal passages.
Symptoms of exposure range from nasal and eye irritation to lung damage and chemical burns. Death can occur due to suffocation in a matter of minutes.
Darke County deputies continue to investigate the incident and had nothing new to report when contacted this morning. Anyone who spotted suspicious activity at the Landmark property early Wednesday morning is asked to call (937) 548-2020.