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A week of Hazmat

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.

A haz-mat suit is taken off of an emergency worker Monday January 19, 2009, outside of the Charter Communications office in Chesterfield. Envelopes in the mail room were found contaminated with a powder which emergency workers determined was a common household product. 300 employees were inside the Charter building at the time and only one was directly affected but showed no symptoms. Max Gersh | Post-Dispatch ©2009

A hazmat suit is taken off of an emergency worker Monday January 19, 2009, outside of the Charter Communications office in Chesterfield. Envelopes in the mail room were found contaminated with a powder which emergency workers determined was a common household product. 300 employees were inside the Charter building at the time and only one was directly affected but showed no symptoms. Max Gersh | Post-Dispatch ©2009

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.

Heavy black smoke billows out of the Nova-Kem chemical plant Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Seward as seen from Comly Road. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Heavy black smoke billows out of the Nova-Kem chemical plant Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Seward as seen from Comly Road. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

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.

Marilyn Turner cries on her husband, Al's, shoulder after being evacuated to Pecatonica High School Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Pecatonica. The Turner's home sits in front of the Nova-Kem chemical plant. A firefighter told Marilyn that her 24 chickens had survived the the explosion and fire at the nearby plant. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Marilyn Turner cries on her husband, Al’s, shoulder after being evacuated to Pecatonica High School Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Pecatonica. The Turner’s home sits in front of the Nova-Kem chemical plant. A firefighter told Marilyn that her 24 chickens had survived the the explosion and fire at the nearby plant. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

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.

Smoke rises from the heavily damaged Nova-Kem chemical plant Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Seward. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Smoke rises from the heavily damaged Nova-Kem chemical plant Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Seward. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

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.

Anhydrous ammonia shoots out of a pipe Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Anhydrous ammonia shoots out of a pipe Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Firefighters waited by as hazmat crews geared up to attempt to cap the pipe.

Area firefighters wait on the scene of an anhydrous ammonia leak Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Area firefighters wait on the scene of an anhydrous ammonia leak Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

Crews of three in hazmat suits went in to stop the leak.

A hazardous material team from MABAS Division 8 works to cap pipe leaking anhydrous ammonia Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

A hazardous material team from MABAS Division 8 works to cap pipe leaking anhydrous ammonia Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

A hazardous material team from MABAS Division 8 works to cap pipe leaking anhydrous ammonia Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

A hazardous material team from MABAS Division 8 works to cap pipe leaking anhydrous ammonia Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

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.

A hazardous materials team member from MABAS Division 8 is walked back to a changing tent Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

A hazardous materials team member from MABAS Division 8 is walked back to a changing tent Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

A hazardous material team from MABAS Division 8 works to cap pipe leaking anhydrous ammonia Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

A hazardous material team from MABAS Division 8 works to cap pipe leaking anhydrous ammonia Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at the Winnebago County Farm Bureau in Rockford. MAX GERSH/ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR ©2013

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.

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