Deputies hailed as heroes after helping victims of Beach Park chemical leak
The police officers and firefighters who were injured while responding to a poisonous chemical leak in Beach Park Thursday are being hailed as heroes.
"This type of event is about as bad as it can possibly get," Lake County sheriff's Sgt. Christopher Covelli said. "The first responders who came out yesterday and put themselves in between a dangerous, toxic chemical cloud and the residents without a doubt saved lives."
Thirty-seven people were hurt after two large containers of liquid anhydrous ammonia leaked while being hauled by a John Deere tractor on Green Bay Road near 29th Street.
The tractor's driver, a 59-year-old Wisconsin man, was headed to a farm field in Beach Park, Covelli said. The driver and the tractor's owner are cooperating with investigators who are trying to determine the cause of the leak, Covelli said. No charges have been filed.
Injured were 23 civilians, sheriff's deputy Marcus Bernardy, sheriff's Sgt. Kyle Brown, an unidentified Zion police officer and 11 firefighters.
Six civilians and one firefighter remained in intensive care at Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan as of Friday, Covelli said. One person is in good condition at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
All three cops and 10 of the firefighters were treated at hospitals and released.
Sheriff John Idleburg lauded Bernardy, Brown and the rest for their efforts.
"Sgt. Brown and Deputy Bernardy are heroes," Idleburg said. "I couldn't be more grateful for all of our first responders who worked so hard to protect the community yesterday."
In a telephone interview Friday from his Gurnee home, Bernardy said he's recovering and expects to return to duty next week.
"I'm feeling a little better," Bernardy said. "(I'm) just kind of taking it easy and monitoring myself."
Bernardy, a seven-year veteran of the sheriff's office, was the first cop on the scene.
He was on patrol about 4:30 a.m. Thursday, just a few hours from the end of his shift, when he got a radio call about a traffic crash with a vehicle on fire and a person down on the roadway.
When he got to the area, Bernardy saw a thick fog even though it was still dark. He also saw an injured man on the road.
Initially, he thought the fog was smoke from a fire.
"There was no color to it," Bernardy said. "The fog was so thick, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face."
Bernardy's primary concern was the man on the blacktop. So he blocked the roadway with his squad car to prevent any other drivers from hitting the injured man.
He then got out and started talking to the man, trying to figure out what had happened.
"He couldn't say much," Bernardy recalled. "Unbeknown to me, he was in respiratory distress."
That's when Bernardy spotted a woman nearby, and a car. He ran to help, but after a few paces in the cloud he smelled ammonia and realized it wasn't smoke.
"I stopped and got really scared," he said.
Farmers use anhydrous ammonia to fertilize soil. It quickly turns from liquid to gas when not under pressure, as happened Thursday.
Exposure can cause breathing difficulties, burns and blisters, and it can be fatal if inhaled.
Bernardy moved back toward his squad car, which was upwind. Brown arrived about the same time.
Bernardy and Brown attended to the woman and the man on the ground -- both of whom were motorists who had driven through the poison gas.
The man had been sickened by the fumes and crashed his car into a ditch, Bernardy said. Despite his injuries, the man crawled out of the gas cloud.
"That probably saved him," Bernardy said.
Bernardy also located the tractor driver and learned what he'd been hauling.
Bernardy escorted the tractor driver and the woman to firefighters who'd arrived. Brown walked the injured driver out of the gas.
As firefighters treated the victims, Bernardy saw a man walking toward the scene from a house. He yelled at the man to get back inside.
Authorities eventually ordered people living near the site to stay indoors, and area schools closed for the day.
The badly injured driver was taken away by an ambulance. As things calmed down, Bernardy realized he was lightheaded and dizzy and that his lungs felt irritated. A firefighter gave him oxygen to breathe.
A deputy then drove Bernardy and the female victim down Green Bay Road to where ambulances were gathering. Bernardy and the woman were taken to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, where he was given oxygen to treat the gas exposure.
Bernardy was released a few hours later and is improving.
"I anticipate making a full recovery," he said.
He said he's been on some wild police calls, "but never anything like this."
Brown was treated at a hospital and released, too. He couldn't be reached for comment.
The sheriff's office and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. The NTSB inspected the ammonia tanks Friday morning and will take parts of the tanks to Washington as evidence, lead investigator Timothy DePaepe said.
In addition to investigating how the leak happened, the agency will focus on the response to the emergency, DePaepe said.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will test soil and air quality, too.