Porter Walker remembers the heavy chemical smell as he and his family fled their home in Graniteville minutes after a nearby train wreck and chlorine leak in 2005.
At the hospital, “you could literally see clothes changing colors” as people who had been hit by the cloud of chlorine packed into the emergency room at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, he said.
Walker, 64 and a 40-year mill employee, will participate in a panel Saturday talking about the aftermath of the train wreck and leak, which killed nine people.
Walker says it has been killing people ever since.
The many effects in the aftermath of the wreck have been studied by researchers at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, and their findings will be presented Saturday at a community forum in Graniteville.
The project used a few different methods to gauge the impact, said Dr. Lucy Annang, assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at USC. One was Photovoice, where 30 community residents were given cameras to record what they saw and how they felt about the impact of the wreck and leak. The researchers also interviewed health care providers and looked at hospital discharge data.
Because chlorine is an airway irritant, some of the health findings were not that surprising, Annang said.
“We did see a spike in respiratory illnesses,” she said.
Walker said his wife already had asthma before the wreck and it “has gotten worse since that train wreck. It’s probably twice as bad as it was.”
He said he believes the wreck’s health effects were both immediate and long-lasting.
“It was devastating because it took out nine people that night,” he said. “People have been dying for the next couple, three, four years. People have been passing away in Graniteville. We’ve had a high incidence of cancer.”
He had tumors removed from his sinus years before the wreck but had them return in 2010, and late last year was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which cost him one of his kidneys.
“I’m proud to say as of now I’m cancer-free,” he said, and because of his history he doesn’t blame the wreck for his recurrences. But for others’ cancers, “it’s a great possibility,” Walker said.
What surprised the USC researchers were some of the lingering mental effects from that night, Annang said.
“People harking back to remembering (it) whenever they hear a train or smelling chlorine, even seven-eight years now later, after the event,” she said.
What has also affected the community is the loss of jobs at the Avondale Mills plant next to the site of the wreck, and the businesses that depended on those workers, Walker said.
“It hurt people all over the entire CSRA,” he said.
There is a sense of physical loss in Graniteville, Annang said.
“People talk about vacancy, not even just in terms of the businesses that left as a result but even in terms of the homes as well,” she said.
On the positive side, she said, the Family Y has established a center in the area that is contributing to a greater sense of wellness.
What Graniteville has gone through and is still going through should have implications for those who deal in disaster relief in places such as West, Texas, the site of a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in mid-April, she said.
Even years later, “after people think that people should be over it or a community should have been able to rebuild by now, we’re able to tell a different story,” she said. And that is “not to expect that after a couple of years people ‘bounce back.’ I think that is an important story for us to be able to tell and we found that exactly with our data.”