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Firefighters, police among 37 sent to hospitals after ammonia leak in Chicago suburb

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Posted at 11:50 AM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 13:58:11-04

BEACH PARK, Ill. (AP) — Authorities say 11 firefighters and three police officers are among 37 people hospitalized due to an ammonia leak in a northern Chicago suburb.

Officials say the chemical leaked from a container being hauled behind a tractor in Beach Park about 4:30 a.m. Thursday, releasing toxic plumes into the air.

The Lake County Sheriff's Office says seven of those hospitalized are in critical but stable condition, including one firefighter. Sheriff's spokesman Christopher Covelli says the three officers are in good condition.

Covelli says the first two officers who responded to the leak had to retreat because they were overcome by fumes.

Several other people were in serious but stable condition, Covelli said. Authorities said most of those injured suffered breathing problems.

Initial reports suggested the vehicle was involved in a crash, but Covelli later said that was not the case. The cause of the leak has not been released.

The leak created a toxic cloud that lingered over Beach Park, about 40 miles north of downtown Chicago.

"This is a very dangerous chemical that can cause unconscious and worst-case scenario death," Covelli said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas that can cause breathing difficulties, burns, blisters and is fatal if breathed in high concentrations. Farmers use it to add nitrogen to soil.

The first two officers who responded to the leak had to retreat because they were overcome by the ammonia, Covelli said.

"This is a very dangerous chemical that can cause unconscious and worst-case scenario death." — Lake County Sheriff's spokesman Christopher Covelli

"It was difficult to get to that scene initially with those chemicals in the air without proper protection and gear to wear over the face," he said.

Authorities said about two dozen law enforcement agencies responded to the leak. The leak was contained within a few hours and the leaking tank was empty, authorities said, adding that they were waiting for the chemical plume to dissipate.

Residents within a mile radius of the leak were initially told to close their windows and remain indoors, but that order was lifted at 10 a.m., Covelli said.

Later Thursday morning, officers went door-to-door in the area to check if anyone was in medical distress, Covelli said.

Schools in the area were closed Thursday.