Ricky Rocha was skateboarding near his Hubbell Avenue home Thursday afternoon when a police officer approached the 10-year-old and told him he had to evacuate the neighborhood.

Soon, Ricky and his brother, Anthony, 12, were on a bus headed downtown.

“I was worried but my brother was cool with it,” Ricky said.

Ricky and Anthony were unaware a tanker truck carrying anhydrous ammonia had crashed on the highway less than a mile from their house. They learned about the accident on the way to the Midwest Wireless Civic Center, in a city bus filled with evacuees from their neighborhood near Sibley Park.

“I was holding my breath the whole way there so I wouldn’t get it in my mouth,” Ricky said.

At the Civic Center, Red Cross workers put name tags on Ricky and Anthony and called their father, Ricardo Rocha. He later joined the boys to wait out the crash cleanup.

It’s a scenario city officials have been anticipating for years: A tanker truck or railroad car crashes and ruptures, sending a deadly cloud of toxic gas over the city.

Thursday, city officials ran through a long-written emergency response script. Many said it was the best practice they could get for the real thing.

“Most of the time when we play with this (scenario), it has a leak,” Mankato Director of Public Safety Jerry Huettl said. “It was interesting today we didn’t.”

“The advantage here was we had time to evacuate,” Huettl said. “With a moving plume (of gas), you wouldn’t have a chance.”

Anhydrous ammonia produces a toxic gas that attacks the mucus membranes in the mouth, eyes and nose. A large amount was never released from the tanker, but such an event could have been deadly.

City officials cleared the neighborhood at about 2:45 p.m., before beginning the most delicate part of the cleanup, when they planned to drain and right the tanker.

Mankato Public Information Director Shelly Schulz said the city expected up to 350 residents would have to be evacuated from the area. Between 150 and 200 people live in the neighborhood, with another 150 elderly residents in the Mankato Lutheran Homes on Mound Avenue, Schulz said.

In the nursing home, Administrator Jennifer Pfeffer directed staff members as they wheeled residents toward a line of idling buses and ambulances. About 30 bed-ridden residents were taken to Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital, while many others were bussed to the Civic Center or Good Counsel.

Kathy Doring, a resident of the assisted living facility, was rushed out the door just as soon as she returned from a trip to River Hills Mall for a haircut.

“The nurse came to my door and said: ‘Have you got your meds ready?’”

Within a few minutes, Doring was sitting in the Civic Center hockey rink, bearing her circumstances with good humor.

“Such comfortable furniture,” Doring said. “Nothing like a folding chair.”

Bob Meyer, South Central Minnesota Red Cross CEO, said the personnel at the Civic Center were well-trained. Many had just returned from stints along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

As Meyer arranged to get food and water to the Civic Center, he explained emergency response planning had been stepped up in recent years with the push for greater homeland security.

Thursday’s situation was planned for, specifically. In Red Cross’ assessment of the most probable disasters in the Mankato area, he said, a toxic spill was “number one or two on the list” — up there with a flood or tornado.

By about 5:15 p.m., evacuation of the Sibley Park area was completed. Several dozen people had arrived at the Civic Center — a few with their dogs, which were allowed on the evacuation busses.

Less than three hours later, the tanker truck was towed off the highway. The roadblocks to Sibley Park were removed.

Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital Communications Director Kevin Burns said the nursing home residents sheltered there would be home by 10 p.m. None experienced serious medical complications during the evacuation, Burns said.

He said the emergency response “went like clockwork.”

“You practice this kind of stuff and you drill this kind of stuff, but this experience was invaluable,” he said.

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