Spot news has a tendency to come and go in waves. Sometimes, there is a long dry spell. Other times, it’s a downpour. Of the spot news incidents photojournalists cover, hazardous material spills aren’t very common.
June let me hit my hazmat quota for the year.
Let me rewind. The last hazmat issue I can remember covering was when I was an intern in St. Louis. The Charter Communications headquarters received letters contaminated with a powdery substance. The powder was later determined to be a common household item and not hazardous.
So, it wasn’t even a real hazmat issue.
Earlier this month, I received a call on my day off that a chemical plant in the small town of Seward, Ill., had exploded. It didn’t take long for me to hop in my car and head to the site.
All I could think of was the chemical plant that exploded in Texas earlier this year.
Besides a few homes and businesses, the plant was in an area surrounded by fields. A two-mile mandatory evacuation was put in place due to a fear of a secondary explosion as well as the risk of toxic gas in the air.
I maneuvered back roads until I found a relatively high point where I was able to get a picture of the smoke rising from the plant.
Unable to get much closer, I went to the evacuation point – a nearby high school. Residents worried about their pets and farm animals left behind.
With a little guidance from a friend in the area, I navigated to a point near the plant. From that vantage point, I could see the occasional flicker of a flame through the gutted structure.
My day off turned into a full shift covering this incident.
Two days later, there was another call for a hazmat spill. This time, a pipe running from a tank of anhydrous ammonia was spewing the chemical into the air.
Firefighters waited by as hazmat crews geared up to attempt to cap the pipe.
Crews of three in hazmat suits went in to stop the leak.
The anhydrous ammonia was coming out of the pipe at nearly 150 degrees below zero. This froze instantly, making their job more difficult and dangerous. After attempting the fix for a short period, they returned to a changing tent and another crew was sent in.
While hazmat situations are rare, it is more rare to have this kind of access at the scenes. With calm winds, the fire chief on site let the media approach close enough to see the crews working. These were all shot with a 70-200, 300, 420 or 600mm focal length lens.
Luckily, any injuries at these sites were minor. These things can turn out much worse.