5 years after train wreck, Graniteville on mend

GRANITEVILLE --- When Don Laird drives through Graniteville, he thinks back to the morning of Jan. 6, 2005.

His brother had called, worried about his son, an employee at Avondale Mills. Mr. Laird said he knew almost instantly that his nephew probably wouldn't be coming home.

"I knew it was something bad wrong," he recalled Wednesday. "I knew if he was alive he would be home."

John Laird Jr., 24, was one of the victims of a deadly train crash and chlorine spill that devastated the small town of Graniteville. Five years later, townspeople still mourn.

"You just keep going, but I know it liked to killed my brother," Mr. Laird said.

A Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train carrying more than 250 tons of chlorine crashed into two locomotives and two rail cars parked on a spur line. The release of deadly gases killed nine and sent more than 250 to hospitals.

National Transportation Safety Board officials determined the crash was caused by a switch that was set to divert train traffic to the side track, but should have been set to let traffic continue to the main line.

Graniteville residents were emotionally and economically shaken that January morning, and have not yet fully recovered, said Phil Napier, the Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville fire chief.

The train company settled a class-action lawsuit with 5,400 people who lived near the accident then settled with victims seriously injured by the chlorine release.

The settlements do not account for Avondale Mills' closing, jobs lost and -- most importantly -- lives ended, Chief Napier said. "I think we've hit our low, but I think we're on the mend now," he said.

The Rev. James Abraham said tragedy has brought townspeople closer. The pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church will hold a service in memory of the wreck and chlorine spill victims Saturday.

"There has been a coalition between residents and church families no matter their color. I've seen the togetherness grow stronger even now," he said. "The economic situation is still tough, but we're still concerned about the healing process and healing the economic situation as well."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (803) 648-1395 ext. 110, or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

GRANITEVILLE TRAIN WRECK

JAN. 6, 2005: At 2:39 a.m., a 42-car Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train carrying 270 tons of chlorine crashes into two locomotives and two cars parked on a spur line at the intersection of Marshall and Canal streets. The crash results in the death of nine people. More than 250 people seek treatment for exposure to the deadly chlorine gas.

JAN. 8, 2005: Norfolk Southern distributes assistance checks for food, clothing and lodging for the 5,400 residents separated from their homes while crews clean up the wreckage of the chlorine spill. Weeks later, dozens of people are arrested for falsifying information to received those funds.

JAN. 9, 2005: National Transportation Safety Board officials reveal the crash was caused by a displaced manual switch, which was set to divert train traffic to the side track, but should have been set to let traffic continue to the main line. The board and other federal officials agree Norfolk Southern workers should have had the manual switch in its proper place.

August 2005: Norfolk Southern settles a class-action suit that compensates an estimated 5,400 people who were evacuated and grants additional funds for lost wages, mental anguish, spoiled food and property damage. The settlement equals $8 million to $12 million.

October 2005: Avondale Mills lays off 250 people in the aftermath of the chlorine spill and train wreck.

July 2006: Avondale Mills shuts down all operations, leaving more than 2,000 people without jobs. Officials claim the closing is a result of foreign competition and the damage from the train crash.

OCTOBER 2008: Legislation requiring major railroad companies to install technology that can automatically stop trains in emergency situations is signed into law.

MEMORIAL SERVICE PLANNED

Bethlehem Baptist Church and the Graniteville Community Coalition will hold a memorial service for victims of the train wreck at 4 p.m. Saturday at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 271 Bethlehem Circle.