Ammonia leak rousts hundreds of tourists from hotels

GULFPORT, Miss. -- A cloud of ammonia leaked from a chemical plant early Sunday, forcing tourists to evacuate eight hotels along the Gulf Coast.

Authorities said it appeared someone had tried to steal the chemical, possibly to make illegal drugs.

Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport was also shut down for seven hours, and several churches canceled or postponed Sunday services after police advised residents to stay indoors.

A couple of emergency workers had to be treated but no other injuries were reported, police Sgt. Joseph Ashmore said.

Anhydrous ammonia, used to make fertilizer, is highly explosive. Exposure irritates the skin and airways and can be fatal.

The evacuation from about 2:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. affected eight hotels near the Gulf of Mexico shore that were filled or near capacity, as well as an all-night Wal-Mart and several small restaurants, Ashmore said. Officials also closed a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 10 and a 3-mile section of U.S. 49 and surrounding streets after a policeman spotted the chemical cloud.

Heading north

Occupants in more than a combined 950 rooms in the eight hotels were evacuated and told to head north.

Some hotels reported that most guests had returned after the evacuation was lifted. "They're still drifting back in," Motel 6 assistant manager Nancy Secrist said early Sunday afternoon.

Ashmore said investigators had found evidence that someone who apparently planned to use anhydrous ammonia to make crystal methamphetamine had tampered with a 2,000-gallon tank at the Channel Chemical plant.

About 600 gallons was missing, though investigators didn't know how much of that had leaked.

Last May, an ammonia leak caused by a thief who stole the chemical from a food processing plant at Arlington, Wash., forced the evacuation of about 1,500 people.

That theft also was probably linked to manufacture of methamphetamine, police and fire officials said.