A Minute-By-Minute Account Of Gulfport Chemical Leak - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

02/23/03

A Minute-By-Minute Account Of Gulfport Chemical Leak

The 600 gallons of Anhydrous Ammonia that leaked into the atmosphere posed a potentially serious health risk. So for much of the morning, Gulfport shut down the airport. It closed Wal-Mart and other businesses on Highway 49. And it evacuated hotels near I-10.

At 4:00 a.m. Gulfport's police department, its fire department and AMR established a command post in the Crossroads Center parking lot. "Certainly we're concerned," said Gulfport Police Chief Wayne Payne. "Anytime you have this kind of gas floating through our city, we're definitely concerned."

The night sky hid the fact that a toxic cloud of Anhydrous Ammonia leaked out of a Channel Chemical tank, and hovered over Gulfport. So Harrison County sent its sheriff's department helicopter into the air, to monitor the gas. "Can you advise leading edge?" an officer asked the helicopter pilot. "Leading edge is past Airport Road, probably 1,000 yards south and west of Airport Road," the pilot responded.

As soon as authorities realized how hazardous this situation could be, they had hotel clerks in the Airport Road Highway 49 vicinity empty their properties. Ray Cox was in one of those hotels. He said they "beat on the door and told us to leave."

By daybreak, the leaking tank had been repaired. But hotel guests were still sitting in their cars. Marty Jacobs got tired of driving around in circles. So the Iowa tourist stopped by the command post to find out what was going on. He described the moment he was told to leave by saying, "We thought it was a terrorist attack because there was people running in the parking lot screaming."

At 8:30 Sunday morning, helicopter pilots noticed the chemical cloud had dissipated. The airport reopened.

Just before Gulfport broke down its command post, 30 police officers got final instructions -- go talk with the North Gulfport neighbors who got trapped inside by the toxic cloud. "This is the last thing we have to do," a commander said. "We just want to make sure everybody out there is okay."

Chief Payne was part of that final meeting. His final words to the exhausted troops were, "You all did a good job tonight. Good job."

During the chemical scare, AMR took four people to area hospitals. They complained about having either burning eyes or breathing problems. One of the patients was Joseph Torres. He's the Gulfport police officer who first reported the chemical leak.

When authorities repaired the leak, they found evidence of a crime.  Gulfport police said the leak was caused by somebody who was stealing the ammonia to make crystal meth. That person hasn't been caught yet.

by Brad Kessie

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