Jon Hunt has been a volunteer firefighter with the Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department for the past year and a half.
But what he saw Wednesday was the most serious situation he has dealt with in his young firefighting career.
“It started out as a vehicle wreck, and then it became a hazmat scenario where we were contacting other people to help us, and then it turned into that huge fire,” he said of the chemical spill that caused a fire and closed Interstate 65 for nearly 17 hours Wednesday.
Hunt, who is 26, and the department were called to the scene at 4:37 a.m. and arrived shortly thereafter. He and others from the department were there until 4:19 p.m., which is about the time the fire went out and the northbound lanes were reopened.
Fire Chief Charles Densford could not be at the scene, so Hunt took command because of seniority. That was the first time Hunt had taken command of a scene for the fire department.
“I was a little nervous,” he admitted. “I’ve only been on the department for a year and a half, and this was my first time running a scene.”
But Densford, who arrived after the fire started, said Hunt made the department proud of how he handled the situation.
“It escalated to a really big incident, and he did a great job with it,” the 19-year veteran said, adding he was impressed with the communication Hunt had while dealing with so many agencies. “I’m sure he was overwhelmed because of what it escalated to and everything that was involved and how it just seemed to continue to escalate.”
Hunt said he and first responders monitored the semitrailer full of chemicals as it was being unloaded by Indiana Spill Response, an emergency cleanup crew from Anderson, and Midwest Environmental Services of Brownstown. At that point, the other two semitrailers had been hauled away.
Hunt said he and other firefighters were 20 feet away from the trailer as it was being unloaded by the cleanup team before igniting. Hunt said he noticed a thin white fog emerging from the semitrailer, and one cleanup crew member reported his eyes were burning while unloading the chemicals.
“They suited up and went inside and started taking contents off the trailer and loaded them onto another trailer, and there was just a little bit of white smoke coming out,” he said, adding the more that was taken off, the more smoke seemed to billow from the trailer. “The more they moved stuff inside the trailer, the worse the fumes got, so we had them completely get away from the area.”
Hunt said the fog changed colors, and with every color change, responders in the area grew more concerned.
“It slowly went to a white fog to a yellowish to a real thick orange fog,” he said.
After the orange fog emerged, Hunt backed responders up to at least 300 feet.
About an hour later, the fog turned to a white smoke Hunt said is consistent with that of a fire.
“Then it just turned gray and black and caught on fire,” he said.
From the start, Hunt said it was clear the chemicals were serious because he and others observed corrosion near the front of the trailer where drums and buckets of chemicals had ruptured following the wreck.
First responders knew the chemicals were creating a larger hole because more liquid started gushing out over time, he said. The semitrailer had buckled up near the front of the trailer, Hunt said.
“We could tell it was bad because we could see it eating through the trailer,” he said. “The chemicals were leaking out the side, and the longer we were there, the more would leak out the side, so we knew there was a corrosive acid in there that was eating the metal away even more,” he said.
For Hunt, who joined the department because of a desire to give back to his community, making sure all of the first responders and cleanup crews were safe was his top priority.
“I’m glad everybody was OK,” he said. “I’m glad no one got hurt out of all the departments that came and helped us.”