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Recalling the 1992 benzene oil spill: Through the eyes of a child

"It was a lot to take in as a 6-year-old. The concept of dangerous air was, at that stage, terrifying — and, for that reason, cemented a memory in my brain that still hangs on today. ... Certainly, I’m not the only one with memories of June 30, 1992, when up to 50,000 residents of the Superior and Duluth area were evacuated due to a dangerous toxic cloud stemming from a train derailment less than 10 miles south of the area."

Family evacuates
Ben and Chris VanLierop had precious cargo when they shot up to Central High School on June 30, 1992 -- 10-week old Johan. "It was scary," Chris said Friday from her home in Hopkins, a Minneapolis suburb, when recollecting a long day spent in the school gym as parts of Duluth were evacuated after a benzene spill.
File / Duluth News Tribune
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Huddled in the basement, with the companionship of family and my favorite stuffed animals, I attempted to grasp the reason we found ourselves there in the first place. A toxic cloud, measuring 20 feet by 5 feet had blanketed the Duluth-Superior community , making the air dangerous to breathe.

It was a lot to take in as a 6-year-old. The concept of dangerous air was, at that stage, terrifying — and, for that reason, cemented a memory in my brain that still hangs on today.

I lived in Hermantown, Minnesota, at the time, just up the hill from Duluth. It wasn’t the evacuation zone, but it was just miles from the cloud.

Certainly, I’m not the only one with memories of June 30, 1992, when up to 50,000 residents of the Superior and Duluth area were evacuated due to a dangerous toxic cloud stemming from a train derailment less than 10 miles south of the area.

'Is it a killer cloud?' Duluth-Superior benzene oil spill evacuation: Through the eyes of a child
Tue Sep 06 11:22:30 EDT 2022
In the minutes before 3 a.m. on June 30, 1992, as the Northland slept, a freight train carrying hazardous materials just south of Superior derailed, sending train cars carrying aromatic chemicals sailing 71 feet into the waters of the Nemadji River. 

The result was catastrophic —  the chemical cocktail created an orange colored vapor cloud measuring 20 miles long and 5 miles wide — and it parked itself over the populated area of Superior and neighboring Duluth. As a result, more than 50,000 residents were evacuated. 

Reporter Trisha Taurinskas recalls the scary situation and speaks with then-Police Chief Scott Lyons about the events of that day. 

I didn’t know what hazardous chemicals were swirling around in that cloud at the time. Nobody did, and that’s what made it so terrifying. We learned later that it was dangerous — the train cars that fell into the river were carrying a liquid mixture containing benzene. The flammable liquid, which creates a vapor heavier than air, was responsible for the creation of the low-lying hazardous cloud.

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According to the Department of Health and Human Services, benzene exposure is known to cause cancer in humans.

So, there we were. The communities of Duluth and Superior, sitting beneath a carcinogenic cloud, trying not to breathe it in.

To piece together my memory from that day, I reached out to my mother to see what she recalled from what has now been dubbed “Toxic Tuesday.”

Like most people who lived in the Northland during that time, it’s a memory she tucked away — unleashed by the mere mention of the event.

My mom’s recollection was that the spill occurred in Gary, now referred to as “New Duluth.” She’s not too far off — the oil spill occurred somewhat near the Minnesota border. Like most people, she recalls the cloud the spill created, and the fear of the unknown at the time.

Residents in Superior and those below the hill in Duluth up to 12th Street were asked to leave.

When asked if — and why — we hid in the basement, her answer was simple: We were trying to limit our exposure. While we were above the hill, our windows had been open. So, we headed to the basement, which was separated from the main floor by a sturdy door.

“Well, we couldn’t breathe it in,” she said, explaining our basement move.

My brother was 15 years old at the time of the oil spill. He was a bit surprised when I called him to ask him if he recalled the 1992 benzene oil spill. It’s not something we talk about regularly. But, like most Duluthians, it’s a memory that’s easily accessed when asked.

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“Yeah, I remember the cloud,” he told me. “I remember thinking about it over the years.”

I spoke with former Duluth Police Chief Scott Lyons, too. His recollection of the unfolding of that day was fascinating — it was a situation nobody could have foreseen. Sure, the police department carried out hazmat exercises with the fire department, but there was no handbook for how to evacuate an entire city due to a 20-mile long toxic cloud.

My conversation with Lyons made me think of all the stories swirling around Duluth, Superior — and beyond — of people who experienced that day. I think of the tourists, the moms with new babies, the pregnant women, the elderly.

I also think of the swift evacuation, and wonder if people would be as compliant and cooperative today.

Related Topics: DULUTHSUPERIOR
Opinion by Trisha Taurinskas
Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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