Houston’s Worst Traffic Accident – What Did We Learn?
June 8th, 2018
42 years ago this month, a truck driver lost control of his vehicle on the 610 West Loop. That’s hardly a rare occurrence, but circumstances that day combined to create an incident local news stations still call the worst motor vehicle accident in Houston history. The truck was a tanker truck, carrying 7000 gallons of industrial anhydrous ammonia. It plunged off the ramp and onto the Southwest Freeway below, releasing a cloud of ammonia gas that killed several people, caused permanent lung damage for others, and killed most of the vegetation in the area.
In four decades, we’ve learned a lot, instituted procedures, and changed response protocols to make Houston residents and visitors to our roadways safer in the event of a tanker truck accident resulting in a hazardous chemical spill. But, transporting hazardous materials through a heavily-populated area like Houston remains risky. With hundreds of trucks carrying hazardous materials through the city each day, hazmat spills are more common than most residents may realize.
Hazmat Accident Management
Hazardous chemical spill management has evolved since 1976. Some of the changes have resulted from improved science, better equipment, and faster, more flexible communication methods. However, the massive release of ammonia that occurred on the 610 and Southwest Freeway more than 40 years ago had a direct impact on procedures and safety protocols in hazmat incidents.
Formation of the Hazardous Materials Team
One of the most significant changes is the handling of hazardous chemical spills on Houston roadways. In 1979, the Houston Fire Department formed an official Hazmat response team. Today, Houston Hazmat responds to about 1,200 calls each year, or an average of about 23 per week. These incidents include not just traffic accidents and highway spills, but also leaks, spills, fires, and explosions at local chemical plants and other businesses employing hazardous chemicals.
Hazmat Houston brings more sophisticated equipment, more extensive supplies, and more intensive training to hazmat incidents. However, with just one dedicated hazmat station in the city, response times average more than 20 minutes. Where hazardous chemical exposure is involved, minutes count.
Shelter in Place Protocols
Shelter-in-place protocols like those employed in response to chemical spills during and after Hurricane Harvey developed as a direct result of the 1976 ammonia spill. In 1979, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a report concluding that many of the people who were killed and seriously injured while attempting to escape the area after ammonia gas filled the air would have fared better had they remained in their vehicles with their vents closed.
Similarly, occupants of nearby buildings who witnessed the cloud of toxic gas and attempted to evacuate were more likely to sustain injuries and sustained more serious injuries than those who remained in the building with the air intake systems shut down. Those lessons directly informed standard protocols that are still in place today, and which played a significant role in the response to chemical releases in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes.
Hazardous Chemical Spill Injuries and Fatalities
While measures such as informing the public of safety protocols, specialized training for first responders and minimizing response time can mitigate the damage from a hazardous chemical release, hazardous materials are hazardous. The best defense against hazmat injuries and deaths is responsible management of those materials.
When a driver carrying hazardous materials is negligent, or a chemical plant fails to safely maintain its equipment or train and supervise employees working with those materials, people are at risk. The most important safety measures in this area are in the hands of those who store, use, and transport hazardous chemicals.
If you have been injured due to a traffic accident involving hazardous materials, have suffered chemical exposure as the result of corporate negligence, or have lost a loved one due to chemical exposure on the road or at work, you may be entitled to compensation. Chemical exposure injuries can have long-term effects, which may impact everything from your earning capacity to your quality of life. You may also face large medical bills and an ongoing need for medical care and monitoring.
Paul Cannon has practiced personal injury trial law since 1995. He is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law (2005). He has earned recognition as a Super Lawyer by Thompson Reuters in 2017 & 2018, and as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association in 2017. He is a Shareholder, trial lawyer and online marketing manager at Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. His legal writings have been published by the Texas Bar Journal, Business.com, Lawyer.com HG Legal Resources, Lawfirms.com, and others. He has been asked to give education talks and media interviews on dog bite law.