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Helmut Schmidt and J. Shane Mercer, Published November 02 2008

At least 11 people injured by anhydrous ammonia leak south of Moorhead

UPDATED 10:15 p.m.

At least 11 people, possibly more, were reported injured tonight when anhydrous ammonia leaked from a tank that was being pulled by a farmer about half a mile east of the Red River on 60th Avenue, south of Moorhead.

The injured – nine adults and two children – were being treated at MeritCare Hospital in Fargo, but had not been admitted as of 8:25 p.m., hospital spokeswoman Carrie Haug said.

Haug later said one person was treated and released.

A farmer working a field on the south side of 60th Avenue was pulling a tank of the fertilizer chemical when the hitch on the tank broke, said Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist.

The farmer’s vehicle then pulled away from the tank, disconnecting the tank’s tubing and allowing the chemical to escape. The farmer closed a valve to shut off the leak, but not before a small anhydrous ammonia cloud formed.

The first responders were dispatched to the scene at 6:30 p.m.

F-M Ambulance personnel said their crews transported five people to MeritCare. They did not know what sort of injuries the victims suffered. Those transported came from both the Minnesota and North Dakota sides of the Red River.

At least three automobiles drove into the toxic ammonia cloud, said Moorhead Assistant Fire Chief Clay Dietrich. All three drivers were treated by medical staff on site, decontaminated by the Fargo-Moorhead hazardous materials team and transported to MeritCare. They were all conscious when transported, Dietrich said.

“Anhydrous ammonia is very dangerous. It is a chemical, and you can be overcome by it very quickly,” Bergquist said in an interview on the scene. “Thank goodness all these people right now appear to be OK, but again we’re just trying to make sure we have them all.”

Rick Cameron, a field supervisor for F-M Ambulance, said the Moorhead Fire Department had released his crews on the Minnesota side of the river shortly before 8 p.m. At that time, crews were still waiting on the North Dakota side of the river. By 8:30 p.m., 60th Avenue on the Minnesota side of the river and 52nd Avenue on the North Dakota side were opened to traffic.

Innovis Health in Fargo had not seen any injuries as of 7:50 p.m., according to the house supervisor and according to Kris Olson, a spokeswoman.

MeritCare went into controlled access mode Sunday, said Tim Vangerud, the hospital’s safety and security manager.

Limited entry was allowed into the hospital and security officers screened people to make sure those who had been exposed to the gas cloud were admitted by way of a different entrance than other emergency room patients or visitors, Vangerud said.

The first patient came into MeritCare at 7:15 p.m. on their own, Haug said.

Ten people were still in the MeritCare emergency room as of about 9:30 p.m, Haug said. She did not know if all would be treated and released.

Haug said the patients had complained of symptoms including a burning feeling in the chest, shortness of breath, and watering and burning eyes.

Three patients had been decontaminated at the scene, Vangerud said.

Olson said Innovis had initially gone into an emergency preparedness lockdown mode and had brought in extra respiratory therapists.

The hospital was told to be prepared for potential casualties by both the Cass and Clay sheriff's departments, Olson said.

Among those responding to the incident were the Moorhead Fire Department, Dilworth Fire Department, Moorhead Police Department, Clay County Sherriff’s Department and Salvation Army Disaster Services.