Diann Funk, 50, didn’t think much of sirens she heard from her Atchison, Kan., home shortly after 9 a.m. Friday.
Her curtains were closed, the windows shut and she couldn’t see the thick, white fog with the “chlorine” smell that surrounded her home.
Minutes later, her husband, Stan, stumbled in the front door with the dogs, agitated, struggling to breathe and reeking of the same bleachy smell.
The dachshunds, Poppers and Dexter, appeared to be short of breath, too, and Dexter began throwing up.
“We could not see the trees in our yard,” Diann Funk said. “It was that thick. My husband could hardly breathe.”
An apparently accidental mixture of sodium hypochlorite and sulfuric acid at the MGP Ingredients plant between 10th and 14th Streets created a dangerous chemical fog that covered downtown Atchison and sparked evacuations and highway shutdowns.
The chemical plume dissipated on the outskirts of town within hours, leaving dozens injured in its wake. By the end of the day, at least 67 people received medical treatment at Atchison Hospital. Three were admitted, including one sent to intensive care for breathing problems.
Twenty-one total patients were sent to Mosaic Life Care in nearby St. Joseph, Mo., for further treatment. Hospital workers there donned protective suits and set up a sanitary decontamination tent to clean the patients of chemicals in a restricted area of the facility. Of those, 18 were treated and released, three were being evaluated and treated Friday evening, and no patients were in intensive care.
Five of the injured were city employees from police, fire and public works departments. It was unclear how many plant employees were affected.
In a statement Friday afternoon after the chemical plume dissipated and an all-clear had been declared, MGP said it was “cooperating fully to investigate and ensure that all appropriate response actions are taken.” MGP said it also has hired outside experts to assist the investigation into the accident and the response to it.
The MGP plant makes alcoholic beverages and food additives. It has operated in Atchison since 1941 and employs about 225 people at two locations.
Friday’s chemical mishap was one of several major emergencies that have occurred at the distillery of wheat proteins and starches in recent years. A grain cement elevator exploded in April 2015, injuring four. A smaller explosion destroyed one wall of a production warehouse this past February.
State and federal regulators have fined the company several times over the years for various failures, most of them concerning plant emissions unrelated to the type of accident that occurred Friday.
In 2006, the company was fined $26,000 for not having the emission-control devices required by the Environmental Protection Agency. A $22,000 penalty came in 2009 for failure to comply with a consent agreement on performance testing. Failure to comply with emissions caps brought a $5,000 fine in 2010 and a $6,000 fine last year.
Atchison City Manager Trey Cocking said the incident Friday occurred just after 8 a.m. when a tanker truck delivered chemicals into the wrong tank. The two chemicals are well known to be dangerous when mixed.
The chemical reaction created a plume of thick fog that covered a portion of downtown and traveled north and then west, as the wind shifted, officials said. Kansas Highway Patrol troopers followed the shifting cloud by helicopter until it dispersed.
Residents outside the plume area were asked to evacuate and avoid the area north of MGP. People were advised through the radio and social media to avoid that area. Residents of Atchison who lived north of MGP were told to stay inside with their doors and windows shut and turn off their heating and cooling systems.
Ted Graf, the interim fire chief for Atchison, said emergency responders used large amounts of water to dilute the mixture and allow the plume to dissipate. He said inhalation of the gas can cause upper respiratory problems, and people with asthma or other lung-related issues would be the most affected by exposure.
Students from Atchison High School, middle schools and alternative schools were evacuated to Wal-Mart, while students at the elementary school were told to shelter in place, said Atchison Public School District Superintendent Susan Myers. The Atchison County Courthouse was evacuated, and classes at Benedictine College were also canceled.
At one point, Cocking said, authorities considered evacuating the entire city of 11,000. But by 11 a.m., emergency responders said the situation was under control and an all-clear was issued.
“It was a large-volume plume that enveloped a large area of the city,” Graf said. “We are very fortunate at this time that there were not more injuries.”
The Funks live seven blocks north of the plant. On Friday morning, Funk said, it was a clear, sunny day when her husband left the house to walk the dogs at a local park. At the dog park, he was hit with a chlorinelike smell.
“All of sudden, it started getting worse,” Funk said. “One of the dogs was coughing. By the time he got the dogs hooked up and back out on the street, he wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to make it back.”
Brent Schuler, general manager of the Taco John’s on South 10th Street, said he and his employees saw the plume before they eventually smelled it. They watched emergency management crews roll on to the street and wanted to know what was going on.
“The only thing that went through my mind was, ‘I want to get the heck out of here if it’s something serious,’ ” Schuler said. “I got my employees out.”
Sodium hypochlorite is essentially household bleach and should not be mixed with any other chemical unless “adequate engineering controls and personal protective equipment are in place,” according to the Chlorine Institute, based in Arlington, Va.
“Accidental mixing may cause dangerous conditions that could result in injury to personnel and/or damage to property or the environment,” the institute advises.
Mixing sodium hypochlorite with sulfuric acid results in the release of hydrogen chloride, said Jerry Ray Dias, distinguished professor of chemistry and medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
It would also likely create some chlorine gas, he said. When it reacts with moisture in the atmosphere, it would form a mist.
“As it drifts, it is being diluted,” Dias said.
After the all-clear, the Atchison Fire Department advised people returning to their homes and businesses to use caution.
“If you notice a strong bleach odor or visible fog, please call 911 so that the Fire Department can assist with ventilating your home or business,” fire officials advised.
Atchison Hospital sent out a release reminding people to take Benadryl, take a shower and stay in a cool place if they experience minor symptoms, such as a sore throat, minor headache and nasal congestion. Those with symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing or other severe symptoms should seek medical attention, it said.
In its Friday afternoon news release, MGP Ingredients said the company had reported the incident to the EPA and Kansas and local authorities.
“There was no significant damage to its Atchison plant as a result of this incident,” the company said.
The Star’s Tony Rizzo contributed to this report.