Truck Accident, Fire, Causes Evacuation In Rutherford County, Tennessee
What Happens If the First Responders Make an Error
18-wheeler accidents can easily cause injuries far away from the scene of the accident, as a recent incident in Tennessee came very close to demonstrating.
A tractor trailer accident and fire in Rutherford County, Tennessee (Murfeesboro area) led to a shelter-in-place order for the entire county which was later amended to a precautionary evacuation of about 150 homes in a nearby subdivision due to the possibility of chlorine gas that was released after a truck fire.
The situation began around 3:00 AM when a tractor trailer rig carrying sugar struck a utility trailer which had become detached in a traffic lane on Interstate 24. That truck skidded and came to rest on the median of the highway. A second truck also struck debris from the first accident, causing the driver to lose control. The second 18-wheeler, which was carrying swimming pool cleaning supplies, wound up on its side and began to burn. When emergency responders arrived, apparently unaware of the second trucks content, they noted the fire and began fighting the fire with water. Unfortunately, that was the wrong thing to do.
The truck was carrying pool cleaning materials which included “tablets” of a chemical called sodium hypochlorite that, when placed in water, give off chlorine gas. When placed in swimming pools, chlorine gas is released to kill algae that finds its way into the pool’s water. Chlorine gas, when inhaled, causes irritation in the body’s respiratory tract. In sufficient quantities chlorine gas can be incapacitating or even fatal, which is why it was the first poison gas to be used in World War I. When water from the fire department came into contact with the chlorine tablets, chlorine gas began forming.
Based on multiple reports from the scene, two major problems can be identified:
first responders were apparently unaware of the contents of the burning trailer
this lack of knowledge led to the use of the wrong fire fighting technique
According to federal law, the trailer should have been displaying a Hazardous Materials placard that described its contents and an identification number that would have revealed that the trailer contained sodium hypochlorite. Failing that, it would have been easy to ask the driver (who was apparently awake and talking when rescue personnel arrived) what he was carrying since that information would have present on his bill of lading and cargo manifest.
Apparently, no one was aware of the tractor trailer’s contents. This lack of information lead directly to the second problem.
As previously mentioned, when sodium hypochlorite comes into contact with water it undergoes a chemical reaction that releases chlorine gas. Now, when chlorine gas itself comes into contact with moisture (such as the moisture in the human respiratory tract and lungs) it reacts with that moisture to form something called hydrochloric acid.
Hydrochloric acid is actually produced by the human body and is one of the components of gastric secretions. The body utilizes hydrochloric acid in the stomach as the first step in the digestion of proteins. The only thing that prevents hydrochloric acid from digesting the rest of you is that it is neutralized by bile from the liver.
The point being made here is that the first responders did precisely the wrong thing when they attacked the fire with water! Although it is hard to determine from news reports exactly when they realized that they had done something wrong, but it was probably within minutes. The only thing that went right in this episode is purely by chance: chlorine gas is heavier than air and thus settled in the lower-lying areas around the accident rather than being blown about by wind.
An interesting question here is that of liability. If the accident and the chlorine gas had caused serious lung injuries or even deaths, who would be liable for the damages?
It seems that the trucking company would be off the hook because there was no indication that the driver was speeding or driving recklessly. Nor was there any indication there was any gas forming prior to the accident. The fact that the accident occurred through no fault of the driver seems to end the liability question as far as the driver and his employer are concerned so long as the hazmat placard was displayed.
The person whose utility trailer precipitated the series of events could be held liable if the trailer became disconnected due to negligence or if he or she made no effort to remove it. But that would have had no bearing on the accidental release of chlorine gas. It would therefore seem that the only thing that could have made a difference was the fire department’s mistake of using water on the trailer’s contents.
Whether a fire department could be liable for a mistake is something that has yet to be addressed by a court. Hopefully, that issue will remain undecided for a long time to come.