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Deadly chemical truck wrecks

Thursday, February 7, 2002

The scene Feb. 4 resembled something from a science fiction movie as two Hazmat officials dressed in silver protective suits, masks and helmets walked down Highway 63 toward an overturned tractor-trailer that had been hauling sodium cyanide.

The Hardy Fire Department was paged out by 9-1-1 at approximately 10:45 a.m. after a 1999 International tractor-trailer driven by James G. Steed, 61, of Cleveland, Miss., was traveling north on Highway 63 approximately two miles north of Hardy when it left the roadway, traveled 560 feet before striking an electric pole and overturning. The truck was carrying 13 containers, weighing over 3,600 pounds each, of sodium cyanide in solid form manufactured by DuPont. Sodium cyanide is used in the mining industry for extracting minerals.

The radio crackled with life as the dispatcher warned the fire department, "Do not use water, repeat, do not use water. Substance is extremely dangerous and can be deadly if mixed with water."

According to Scott Moody, assistant chief with the Fulton County Special Operations Unit, as little as six drops of sodium cyanide is lethal and when mixed with water be-comes va-porous and can result in instantaneous death. Though the threat of rain loomed on the horizon it never became a reality, much to the relief of rescue workers. Authorities shifted into high alert, calling for Hazmat, shutting down traffic and evacuating homes and churches within a two-mile radius of the accident.

North Arkansas Electric Cooperative was called to cut the power lines that were blocking the highway, and they did so quickly as authorities worked to move traffic away from the accident.

Several tractor-trailers had nowhere to go but forward, and Cpl. Dale Moad with the Arkansas State Police had two choices -- leave the trucks sitting and evacuate the drivers or move them forward past the overturned truck.

Officers with the Hardy Police Department and the Sharp County Sheriff's office walked up and down the line of stopped traffic trying to determine what the tractor-trailers stopped on the highway were carrying -- that was a determining factor for Moad's decision. But time restraints called for quick action and Moad decided to move them past the overturned truck as quickly as possible in order to clear the roadway for emergency vehicles.

As the last vehicle within the evacuation radius sped past the accident, detour stations were set up at McDonald's in Hardy and approximately two miles north of the accident. Moad was very clear in his instructions to the other officers. "I don't want anything coming through here. I don't care if it's got a red light, a blue light or whatever. Stop all traffic," he said over his police radio.

A Hazmat team with the Fulton County Special Operations Unit arrived on scene in a convoy of flashing lights and two men went to work donning protective gear in order to approach the truck and determine the severity of the situation. It wasn't enough to simply don the suits; co-workers stood by with rolls of gray duct tape and taped up areas around the masks, legs and arm openings. While those men worked on protective gear, others worked at setting up a decontamination station. Two pools were inflated and filled with water, ready for the men's return from the site.

Once the men were suited up, they cautiously approached the overturned truck, circling it and looking for any breach in the containers. When they returned they each stepped into one pool of water and then the other as their suits were washed down for contaminants.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the men removed their masks and informed officials all of the containers appeared to be unharmed.

Finally, after hours of stalled traffic, officials opened one lane of traffic. But it was more than eight hours after the accident occurred before representatives from DuPont's regional Hazmat response team, with the help of Dail's Wrecker Service, had all of the containers removed from the overturned truck and placed on another truck waiting to transport them back to Memphis to be repackaged and reshipped. According to Greg Zweig, environmental coordinator for DuPont's Memphis plant, the accident was an example of the integrity of DuPont's containers. He said the containers were well designed in order to sustain an accident such as the one that took place. Zweig commended the local Hazmat team for their quick response.

"We were fortunate none of the containers were breached. If they had gotten wet it could have been a very bad situation," said Heath Everett, Hazmat commander and Salem fire chief.Everett said the wind never put Mammoth Spring in any immediate danger; however, they were prepared to "dike and dam," which would have required a trench to have been dug to prevent any contaminants from spreading.

According to Moad, Steed and his passenger, Tommie Jennings, 56, of Memphis were taken to Eastern Ozark Regional Health System in Cherokee Village where they were treated and released. Steed was given a citation for careless and prohibitive driving. Zweig said DuPont would launch their own investigation of the accident.

Moad commended the Fulton County Special Operations Unit. "They were very helpful with what they did," he said. He expressed concern regarding the initial response and said, "If it had been something fowling the area we would have had 40-50 people dead." Moad said the first responders on the scene were too close and failed to contain the area properly.

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