A decade after tragedy, Graniteville tries to recoup lost jobs

GRANITEVILLE ­­— Resting along a canal between two ridges in a small South Carolina town, the carcass of a former textile mill has long reminded residents of tragedy and hardship. Now, hope has returned that the town centerpiece will repair a distressed economy.

 

Ten years ago, a train derailed near the Avondale Mills plant in Graniteville, releasing about 60 tons of liquid chlorine. Nine people died in the immediate aftermath, and 18 months later, Avondale ceased operations, leaving 2,000 mill workers without a job.

Recent investment in the town has combined with grass-roots efforts to put people back to work. Townspeople, former mill workers, developers and nonprofit workers agree that the worst days have passed and that the small town has started a new chapter.

Violet Senn remembers the early morning of Jan. 6, 2005, when a Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train crashed into two locomotives and two rail cars parked on a spur line. She was one of about 5,400 residents evacuated from the town.

“It was a shock to the community. Total shock,” she said.

Senn returned home about a month later and eventually back to work at Avondale for about a year before the plant was shuttered. She started working at Avondale at age 16, threading yarn spools onto large textile looms. Her parents and other relatives also worked at the Graniteville mills.

Without a job, Senn collected unemployment checks for five years and lived at her mother’s home in Vaucluse, a small community three miles north of Graniteville. Avondale paid for her to earn a GED and start classes at Aiken Technical College to become a paralegal, but she never finished.

During that time, the town was lifeless and she was depressed, she said. People searched for jobs, but most never left Graniteville.

“There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was no future. Graniteville was dead,” Senn said.

Slowly, new life has returned. Bridgestone expanded its tire-production plant nearby, adding hundreds of jobs, and more recently, an appliance recycling facility called Recleim renovated the Hickman plant in the heart of the community.

Megiddo Dream Station, an agency that helps people become self-sufficient and re-enter the workforce, opened in 2012. The organization was an investment of Weldon Wyatt, the owner of nearby Sage Valley Golf Club who earned his fortune by developing Wal-Mart stores. Wyatt was also part of an investment group that purchased some of Avondale’s assets in 2006 and 2007.

“We all feel like the town is on the upswing,” said Phil Napier, who represents Graniteville on the Aiken County Council. “People are enthused over the future and the possibilities.”

After getting help at Megiddo, Senn began working at All Star Tents and Events, a rental company in Aiken, in 2013. The business is moving to Bettis Academy Road in Graniteville this month with hopes of growing and hiring workers.

Recleim’s startup has generated new optimism in Graniteville, said Kay Benitez, the executive director of Megiddo. When the company installed its signs on the building’s facade, residents saw the first tangible evidence of progress since the train crash, she said.

“They saw this is not just a story. This is actually happening,” Benitez said.

Recleim will start operations this year, filling 200 positions by mid- to late 2015, said Doug Huffer, its president and general manager.

“There is a great workforce available in the area. Things we will be doing will be very similar to the mills,” he said.

Will Williams, the president of the Economic Development Partnership, a group that works in Aiken County, said Recleim and Bridge­stone are both helping the town’s revitalization. Smaller operations in other mill facilities added about 800 jobs, but the town still has a net loss of jobs since Avondale’s exit.

“You don’t ever pull 2,000 jobs out of the community and have an immediate recovery. There are still people who want jobs,” Williams said.

Benitez said Megiddo has helped 137 people find work. The former mill workers have a strong work ethic, and many have been working part-time or temporary jobs without stability, she said.

The faith-based organization has launched a capital campaign to build a larger facility. In April, Megiddo will install a 92-foot-tall steel cross as a symbol of hope for Graniteville.

Williams said a master plan is underway for even more revitalization work in Graniteville, such as rehabbing empty mills into industrial, residential or mixed-use buildings.

“In the next five years, you won’t see a tired, dilapidated building in that area,” he said.

 

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

 A train crash on Jan. 6, 2005, in Graniteville released 60 tons of liquid chlorine, killing 9 people.

JAN. 6: 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: 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, accused of falsifying information to receive those funds.

JAN. 9: 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 that 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.

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

APRIL 2008: Norfolk Southern settles a $425 million lawsuit filed by Avondale Mills and the plant’s insurance company. Terms of the settlement remained confidential.

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

JULY 2012: The Graniteville Recovery and Chlorine Epidemiology Study Center opens in Graniteville to serve former mill workers participating in lung testing to examine long-term impacts of chlorine exposure.

FEBRUARY 2013: Recleim announces that it will invest $40.6 million to open a recycling facility in a former mill plant.

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