Midnight evacuations in Witbank as toxic fumes from crashed gas tanker fill the air

A woman in her pyjamas after being treated for possible inhalation of the fumes.
A woman in her pyjamas after being treated for possible inhalation of the fumes.
Image: Supplied / Legacy Emergency Specialists

Residents from Tasbet Park in Witbank (Emalahleni) were forced to evacuate their homes at around midnight on Monday morning due to a toxic gas leak that filled the air.

A tanker carrying ammonia was involved in an accident on the N12 which passes through the Mpumalanga suburb. The gas leaked from the truck,  

Emergency workers were out in full force, helping those who were affected by the toxic fumes which blanketed the air.

“Just before midnight, we heard a loud smashing sound and reports came about a truck that had been involved in an accident. We responded to the scene and found three trucks and one vehicle were involved,” said Gavin Cooper from Legacy Emergency Specialists.

Legacy Emergency Group was among the emergency groups which responded to the scene.

Cooper said one truck had rear-ended another.

The driver of a third truck, who witnessed the accident, had managed to stop his vehicle before it hit the two trucks.

Another motorist, however, crashed into the third truck, lodging his car under the vehicle, Cooper said.

“Driving there, we were in a vapour of ammonia,” said Cooper.

“One of the trucks had released the gas on the N12 and the ammonia vapour was strong and pungent. It knocked your breath away” he said.

Five motorists who were overcome by the fumes abandoned their vehicles close to the accident scene and fled to safety on foot, Cooper said.

Emergency workers said they received reports of residents living near the highway having difficulty in breathing and experiencing burning sensations in their mouths, noses and throats.

Emergency workers from different groups, police, the community policing forum and SA Community Crime Watch group began assisted with evacuations in parts of the suburb affected by the gas.

In one video taken by a resident, locals could be seen in their cars and queuing to get out of the area.

“It feels like we are dying here,” says the person shooting the video.

“Apparently a chemical truck overturned and we have been told to leave our houses. At this time of the night, can you imagine?” he says, coughing between his words.

Residents and emergency workers communicating over the SA Community Crime Watch public channel began sending messages to the channel to describe the situation.

 “To all members of the public, the N12 is closed travelling from Johannesburg towards Witbank. There’s been a major truck accident with ammonia gas leaking. All houses and businesses in the vicinity should close their windows please. We need fire department assistance on the N12,” was one of the audio messages sent by officials onto the channel.

Shortly thereafter, the message was updated, with people urged to get out of their houses and evacuate the area.

“We ask that you guys please get out of your houses so you can move out of the fumes. It is extremely bad there.

The N12 was temporarily closed to traffic as emergency workers tried to contain the spillage.

A medical treatment centre was established in a parking lot at a shopping area. Scores of people gathered at the centre waiting for word to return home.

“Around 150 people have been checked for respiratory distress and four have been hospitalised,” Cooper said that  at around 4am as the treatment facility was closed.

One of the truck drivers reportedly suffered an injury to his arm. No fatalities were reported.

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear.

By 4am, residents were permitted to return to their homes.

Coopers said the smell of ammonia still lingered in the area, but the amount present at that time was no longer lethal.

He said a high concentration of ammonia could cause burns to the respiratory tract, the nose and throat.

In smaller doses, it resulted in irritation of the nose, throat and eyes and could be accompanied by a cough.

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