Man carrying mercury gets lift from Perryville Police, later causes HAZMAT situation
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - It’s one of the most unusual incidents authorities in Cape Girardeau County ever faced.
Late last month, an older man got a ride to a Cape County convenience store right off Interstate 55.
And, he had something inside one of his backpacks dangerous enough to cause a massive emergency response - one that shut the business down during one of the busiest weekends of the summer.
The whole ordeal shines a spotlight on something police departments and sheriff’s offices have done for years - helping travelers by crossing the line into neighboring counties to move them down the road.
“Our thing is to rush in and save the day.”
It’s a motto Fruitland Fire Chief Rob Francis has followed for more than three decades.
But, the strange incident that started back on June 24th stopped him in his tracks.
“I actually got a phone call from a former member of our district here that said I think we’ve got mercury at D Mart.”
The D Mart Convenience Store sits right off interstate 55 at the Fruitland exit.
Video from the business shows an older man with a dog and two backpacks.
An employee working the night of June 24th saw a strange substance leaking from the man’s orange backpack.
She had previous HAZMAT training, so she called a friend who used to work for Fruitland fire.
He’s the one who got Chief Francis on the phone.
“Call dispatch,” Francis recalls after getting that call. “Tell them we have an unknown HAZMAT. Let’s get the ball rolling.”
At what point did you realize this was more than just a wellness check? - I asked Cape Girardeau County Sheriff Ruth Ann Dickerson.
“The employees started explaining what was going on as far as the gentleman having a backpack. A chemical or something was leaking out of the backpack which resulted in a request for first responders from the fire department.”
I asked Chief Francis what he saw when he arrived on the scene.
“Outside the building, where the curb meets the sidewalk, there was a silver substance in that little gap. Yes, that looks like mercury. It was the most that I had seen.”
Mercury is a naturally occurring element most seen these days in old thermometers or thermostats. And just a little can cause a huge problem.
“I know when I called dispatch, told them this is what I think I had, they said how many gallons do you have? I said it’s ounces,” Chief Francis recalls. “It’s not gallons. It’s ounces.”
What’s a large portion of mercury? I asked John Case with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“So, the reportable quantity for mercury in Missouri is a very small amount,” he replied. “It’s basically one pound which is right around one fluid ounce.”
Case is an on-scene coordinator and HAZMAT Technician for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“When you inhale mercury vapor, you absorb about 80 percent of that into your bloodstream,” he tells me. “And it takes weeks to months for that mercury to work its way out of your body. In the meantime, it can cause organ damage.”
“That was one of the concerns for the safety of my guys is--how close can we get to it?” Chief Francis says. “What kind of exposure did we have?”
But that exposure fear impacted more than just the employees and first responders here in Cape County.
The D Mart surveillance video from June 24th shows the man and his dog walking toward the convenience store. But rewind it roughly two minutes, 47 seconds and you’ll see who dropped him off. A Perryville police officer.
“I believe I arrived there a little after midnight,” Case said of his trip to the Perryville Police Department that night.
“We found small mercury beads in the backseat, the hard plastic seat, of the police car.”
As Case worked to collect the mercury and make sure the officer did not get exposed, Chief Francis evacuated the D Mart.
“Put the cones out. The tape at 150 feet. We blocked the street next to D Mart to keep a working area for us.”
I asked Case what time he arrivedt the D Mart.
“I think it was around 2:30am.”
Case says some of the workers had mercury vapors on their shoes.
But the older man with the backpacks had it in his clothes and on all of the stuff he had with him.
“He lost probably everything he owned because it was all grossly contaminated with mercury.”
Case and a fellow HAZMAT technician used a special vacuum to collect the mercury found outside on the sidewalk and inside on the floor.
He showed me video of what the vacuum picked up.
“There’s dirt in this picture but you can see the amount in our collection cup shaking around there.”
They then used this machine, called a Lumex, to test for mercury vapors.
“That way we can tell if there’s a presence inside a closed space that maybe we could not see the beads that we were looking at.”
Authorities on scene helped get the man a shower, and a change of clothes. What they did not get, though, is an explanation. Where did he get all that mercury?
“He denied even knowing he had it,” Chief Francis tells me. “There was all kinds of things he was saying that night that....it was just strange.”
“He claimed he was unaware he had the mercury,” Case added.
So that still remains a mystery, where it came from? I asked.
But, it’s no mystery how that man and his mercury got into Cape County.
He rode in the backseat of a Perryville police car.
I met with Perryville Assistant Chief Bill Jones about the incident.
Do you feel at all responsible, or does your department feel at all responsible? I asked. It cost that business an untold amount of money.
“What I feel is concerned,” he replied.
Jones said that same man got a ride into Perryville from a deputy out of Ste Genevieve County.
“So, he got relayed down to us.”
Jones said the man wanted to get to Hayti.
And they don’t have the resources to help someone who’s homeless or traveling without money.
“And so, our officers tried to get him at least closer to his destination.”
The evening of June 24th, Jones learned the man they helped down the interstate likely had an unknown amount of mercury in one of his backpacks.
He placed a call to Fruitland Fire Chief Rob Francis.
“And I asked him, I said--you wouldn’t be by any chance out on a mercury incident at the D Mart? And he said, yes, I am.”
When I talked to Chief Francis about the mercury spill, he questioned how the man carrying it ended up at this convenience store in the first place.
“That’s one of the questions I have is, why there?”
“We certainly didn’t want to drop him off in the middle of nowhere or at the rest area because the chance of him getting any help at that point would have probably been slim,” says Jones. “So, we indeed dropped him off where he could at least get some water. And food.”
Police departments helping travelers up and down the interstate is nothing new.
“I believe the misconception is that Cape Girardeau County has a lot of resources in our area that perhaps they don’t in their areas. And we really don’t,” Sheriff Dickerson said.
She acknowledges, the issue can be frustrating.
“There are resources that cover the whole southeast Missouri area that, are they enough? NO. Can they give us the answers we really need? No. Not always. But there are resources. And it’s not just for Cape County. It’s for southeast Missouri.”
How would you respond to someone who might say--you just moved him out of town to move him down the line. And he’s no longer your problem now. He’s Cape County’s problem? I asked Assistant Chief Jones.
“I would say that most departments are trying to do what’s right by getting the folks to where they want to be. Or closer to where they want to be. I can tell you there is no uniform way that this is handled throughout this state. Or any other state.”
The uniform response to that June 24th mercury spill meant a long weekend for first responders.
How long of an assignment did this end up being for you? I asked John Case with Missouri DNR.
“Oh, about 13 hours. Or maybe 15 before I got home.”
“14 and ¾”, Chief Francis recalled. “I think that’s what it said for me. My crews were there for almost eight.”
Major Bill Jones calls the mercury spill a unique situation caused by an issue that is anything but unique.
“I can definitely tell you it happens on a regular basis because we just, just two hours ago, received a person from a law enforcement agency out in Illinois that was dropped off here. If there is a better way, I’m not sure what that better way is.”
As for the man whose arrival caused a HAZMAT incident, Sheriff Dickerson says he refused medical help or a place to stay.
“From my understanding, he refused any other assistance. And he wanted to just continue on his own.”
According to the incident report from Cape County, the man got one more ride to a truck stop in Scott County.
He still had his dog, and the only personalized items deemed safe enough for him to keep.
“He had had some fossilized bones that he was very proud of,” Chief Francis tells me. “I did get some pictures of them. So, he did get to keep that. But everything else in his backpack was packed up and taken out for disposal.”
This mercury incident reaches beyond Perry and Cape Counties.
Kirk Mammoliti of the EPA tells me his investigation took him up to Ste. Genevieve County
That’s where someone first dropped that man and his dog off-- at a convenience store just off I-55.
Mammoliti says he did not find evidence of mercury there.
He also tested a gas station right off the interstate in Perryville--where that Ste Genevieve officer dropped the man off.
He did find mercury on some mops and rags a worker used to clean up a spill there.
Mammoliti says, they disposed of those items and tested the employee who did the cleaning...no evidence of mercury on him.
People exposed to elemental mercury like the kind spilled all along that man’s route can cause health impacts that include headaches, mood swings and even tremors.
Visit the Environmental Protection Agency site for a full list of symptoms of exposure to mercury.
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