Two years after spill, community is reeling

GRANITEVILLE - Clay Swearingen believes God spoke to him two years ago.


Hearing the "nasty" sound of two trains crashing in the middle of the night and gas escaping into the cold air, the firefighter got his wife and baby up and sent them to Martinez.

He did this before ever learning that it was deadly chlorine gas fizzing from a ruptured train tanker.

"I don't know how I knew," Mr. Swearingen said. "I guess it was just God that told me to get my wife and baby out of Graniteville."

One of the first people on the scene of the wreck the night of Jan. 6, 2005, Mr. Swearingen wasn't the only one who breathed in chlorine and isn't alone in suffering.

People are still reeling from what happened, he said. But "it's more anger than anything."

Nine people died. Hundreds were injured. Thousands were forced from their homes in the dead of night and not allowed to return for days.

Some effects didn't materialize right away. Residents returning home found belongings ruined by exposure to the chlorine.

Avondale Mills Inc. struggled for months to overcome the damage done to its textile business, but called it quits last summer, laying off 2,000 local workers and blaming the train wreck and overseas competition.

Two years after the accident, the community is on the mend but looking ahead, said Phil Napier, chief of the Graniteville-Warrenville-Vaucluse Fire Department.

"I think we're still in the healing stage," he said.

The train wreck was disastrous, Chief Napier said, but "we're still headed to a prosperous future."

Two ceremonies marking the second anniversary have been planned for Saturday: A candlelight vigil at 6 a.m. at the site of the train wreck and a public gathering at 11 a.m. at the University of South Carolina Aiken, which was used as a decontamination site.

The second event will feature local and state officials. Organizers hope victims will speak at the ceremony.

Mr. Swearingen plans to be there, and he predicts a good turnout.

The official reports on the wreck found that a three-man crew parked Norfolk Southern Train 119 on a spur line near Avondale Mills. But they didn't put the track switch back in the right position, so when Norfolk Southern Train 192 chugged into Graniteville at 49 mph, it rolled off the main track and slammed into the parked train, derailing 14 cars and releasing 60 tons of chlorine gas.

Six of the nine people who died were Avondale workers.

What's missing from those facts is how clear the night was before the wreck happened, Mr. Swearingen said. When he got dressed and drove out after he heard the collision, he said, there was no fog.

Then he made a turn.

"Chlorine had come down on top of me," he said. "It was real thick. It was like throwing a blanket over my windshield. I couldn't see in front of me or behind me. Within a second, it took my breath."

His training kicked in, he said, and he called other rescue workers, warning them that a then-unknown chemical was stealing his ability to talk.

Then he drove himself to the hospital.

"I don't know how I got there, but I got there," he said.

Chief Napier said Mr. Swearingen tipped off rescue workers that they were dealing with a chemical. If he hadn't, Chief Napier said, "more of us would have been in it. More of us would have been exposed. More of us would be dead."

In the past two years, one class-action lawsuit has been settled. Finalized last year, it's for people who had minor injuries and property damage.

Another class-action lawsuit, for people who suffered more serious injuries, is up for approval by a federal judge next week.

That's the one Mr. Swearingen is in. Like many other Graniteville residents, he expressed frustration at how long it's taken for Norfolk Southern to compensate people victimized by the crash.

Mr. Swearingen said he chooses to look at the other scenario.

"We lost nine people in the community," he said. "But it could have been worse."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or


6 a.m.: Candlelight vigil at the wreck site in Graniteville on Canal Street

11 a.m.: Remembrance ceremony at the decontamination site at the University of South Carolina Aiken on University Parkway in Aiken. The ceremony will feature gospel singing and tributes to the victims. Local and state officials have been invited to speak.