News, Operations, Trauma

Chemical Leak, Explosion Traps La. Drivers for 3 Hours

BATON ROUGE, La — Hundreds of drivers were trapped in their cars on Interstate 10 for about three hours Tuesday after a propane tank filled with a chemical often used to make methamphetamines exploded in the back of a car driving down the interstate.

The explosion led two men in the car carrying the chemical – David L. Harkey, 20, and Jonathan M. Bato, 27, both of Saucier, Miss. – to pull their Toyota Camry onto the shoulder to escape the gas that burned and blistered their skin, Louisiana State Police spokesman Trooper Johnnie Brown said.

The men pulled the eastbound car over about a mile north of the Highland Road exit, leading to woes for drivers unable to exit the interstate while first responders blocked the highway for about three hours so hazardous material teams could clean up the spill.

Harkey and Bato, both of whom suffered burns and inhalation problems and were decontaminated at the scene, and State Trooper Michael Daniel, who inhaled the gas – later identified as anhydrous ammonia – were the only people reported injured, Brown said.

State Police had not determined by late Tuesday what Harkey and Bato were doing with the ammonia stored in two 5-gallon tanks in the back of the car.

The gas is used commercially as a refrigerant and fertilizer, but is also used illegally to produce methamphetamines.

“It’s a precursor to methamphetamines,” Brown said. “It’s one component of a multi-component system.”

Harkey and Bato were both cited for reckless handling of a hazardous material, but additional charges may be pending, Brown said.

Motorists driving past the car called 911 about 3:40 p.m. to report the thick white cloud as a possible car fire, Brown said, but a driver who choked on the gas stopped at the nearby State Police Troop A headquarters for medical attention and told them he saw two men leaving the car toward a wooded area.

Arriving first responders from State Police and the St. George Fire Department found Harkey and Bato walking toward the Camry and detained the men, Brown said.

Hazardous material units from the State Police and Baton Rouge Fire Department were called to the scene while State Police closed the interstate.

The St. George Fire Department also issued a shelter-in-place order in the Galatoire’s Bistro and the surrounding shopping center to protect the patrons and workers.

In addition to the drivers trapped on the interstate between Siegen Lane and Highland Road, many others were delayed or diverted until State Police were able to reopen all the lanes at 6:40 p.m.

Some drivers nearest to the chemical release stood outside their cars on the shoulder of the interstate while they watched hazmat response teams spray water on the propane tanks to dilute the gas.

Ray Elhami, a road engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Development, sat in his Toyota Avalon at the front of the stalled traffic while he listened to the radio for updates on the cleanup.

At one point, he asked a state trooper if he could pull his car to the side of the road and walk the 10 minutes to his house, he said. Turned down, he waited for the roadway to reopen to drive the last two miles to his residence off Highland Road.

“I should have left work five minutes earlier,” he said.

Hazardous material teams first doused water on the two propane tanks and later used several gallons of vinegar brought in a sport utility vehicle.

The vinegar neutralized the ammonia, said Preston Gallup, the Baton Rouge Fire Department’s hazmat assistant chief. Before the roadway was opened, crews worked to dilute whatever gas was left in the tanks.

Gallupsaid anhydrous ammonia can be stored in pressurized tanks and is used in cooling systems or as a fertilizer in this area at sugar cane farms.

However, anhydrous ammonia is hardly ever stored in 5-gallon propane tanks, he said.

Firefighters believe the ammonia may have overheated or been damaged during transit, leading one of the tanks to rupture.

By the time the interstate was re-opened, most of the trapped drivers had heard on the radio or by cell phone calls what had caused the closure.

Kelvin Gauthier, Baton Rouge resident who was driving a dump truck for Ace Enterprises Inc., sat and talked with a Lamar Advertising employee outside their vehicles while they waited for the road to open.

Gauthier was carrying a load of debris he said he knew he wouldn’t get to the landfill on time.

Like others, Gauthier had heard about the possible drug link to his predicament.

“They say drugs make you stupid,” he said. “Driving around with that (anhydrous ammonia) in your personal vehicle is stupid.”