By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
A suspicious package found inside a Decatur train car packed with hazardous chemicals triggered mass school evacuations and closures as residents feared a catastrophic explosion.
After a bomb squad descended on the rail car parked at Daikin America on State Docks Road, they found what turned out to be a 2.3 pound package of tightly wrapped marijuana stashed inside the compartment of the car.
The bomb scare sent Decatur school children and students from other neighboring schools — West Morgan, Limestone County and East Lawrence — home or bussed to outlying schools. Alabama 20 was closed from U.S. 31 to the Lawrence County line as law enforcement and emergency management officials feared the blast would ignite the corrosive hydrogen fluoride inside the rail car, potentially devastating a 25-mile zone northwest of the city.
“Some may feel we overreacted, but we erred on the side of caution,” said Morgan County Emergency Management Agency Director Eddie Hicks. “If we were in the same situation, I’d think we’d do it again.”
Hicks said local authorities, schools and industry executed emergency plans just as they’ve practiced in the past in case of a situation at the Brownsferry Nuclear Plant just across the Tennessee River in Limestone County.
Officials believe the marijuana was packed on the train in Mexico and made its way to Alabama undetected. The package, wrapped tightly in duct tape and plastic, was only discovered when a Daikin employee lifted the dome of the rail car to attach a hose to a safety valve to pump out the hydrogen fluoride Thursday morning. The chemical is a main ingredient in Daikin’s fluoropolymer products but is a highly corrosive acid if it comes into contact with skin or is inhaled, said Forrest Keith, spokesman for the Daikin America Decatur plant.
“The operator noticed the safety seal on the dome was broken, and when he opened it he saw the unidentified package,” Keith said.
After schools were evacuated, bomb teams moved in. Due to the package being located on top of the train car, a robot could not be utilized. A bomb technician outfitted in safety gear picked up the package and put it on the ground. It was carefully opened, revealing the marijuana, and then Decatur police confiscated the package.
Decatur police responded along with Decatur Fire and Rescue’s hazardous materials (HAZMAT) team and the Huntsville regional bomb squad. The Federal Bureau of Investigations also sent a bomb technician to the scene.
The EMA notified neighboring industrial plants so they could initiate their respective disaster plans. Keith said some plants decided to shut down and send their workers home while others, including Daikin, chose to hold their employees at work until the contents of the package could be confirmed.
While authorities mobilized, Decatur city schools dismissed its elementary students at Julian Harris, Leon Sheffield, Benjamin Davis, Woodmeade and West Decatur. Morgan County Schools dismissed West Morgan students. Limestone County Schools closed Clements High and Blue Springs Elementary, and Lawrence County Schools East Lawrence schools. Any remaining students not picked were relocated to either other schools or gyms in the area.
Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.