Originally created 01/06/05

Officers evacuate area near train wreck

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GRANITEVILLE -- At least eight people died and more than 260 sought treatment for exposure to deadly chlorine gas released after a chemical-laden freight train slammed into a parked locomotive in Graniteville early Thursday, officials said.

The massive pile up took place at 2:40 a.m., in the middle of the Avondale Mills night shift, on a rail line next to the company's Stevens Steam plant. Employees fled the plant, workers said, and walked into a darkness laced with poisonous chlorine vapor, which is heavier than air and settles in low-lying places.

"We saw a yellow cloud coming at us," said Carl Gartman, a Graniteville resident who works the third shift at Avondale Mills' Gregg Plant. "I started coughing and spitting up all different kinds of stuff. I passed out in the parking lot."

Thursday evening, State Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater, said at least eight people were dead - most of them workers at Avondale Mills.

Two employees died at the Mills' Woodhead plant, two at the Gregg plant and another at the Stevens Steam plant. A truck driver parked at the Gregg plant was found dead in his sleeper cab, Mr. Moore said.

The train's engineer also died and an elderly man was found dead in his house on Main Street, he said.

By late afternoon, authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of an estimated 5,400 residents living within a one-mile radius of the wrecked train because of concern over chlorine continuing to leak from the ruptured tank car.

The train had three tank cars carrying 90 tons of chlorine.

With health officials worried about the gas settling back toward the ground "like a blanket," 100 law enforcement officers swept into the quarantined zone to conduct a house-to-house search of the neighborhood and point residents to one of four nearby shelters.

Residents were directed to South Aiken High School, Midland Valley High School, the University of South Carolina Aiken and the First Baptist Church of Aiken. But at least one evacuee, Richard DeMedicis, 40, of 114 Howlandville Road, which he says is more than a mile south of the wreck, wondered why he had to leave his house.

"I'm kind of surprised because I haven't smelled chlorine all day," he said. "They won't tell me how long I have to be gone, and I need to know."

Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt also ordered a dawn-to-dusk curfew in a two-mile radius of the wreck of the Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train, which slammed into a parked locomotive and two cars, derailing 14 cars and rupturing one of three chlorine-laden cars.

Thom Berry, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said air cool ing at nightfall could cause chlorine gas to settle back to earth "like a blanket." He said DHEC workers are focused on only one of the chlorine tank cars.

One of Thursday's fatalities was the engineer of the northbound train, said Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman at the railroad's Norfolk, Va., headquarters, who declined to release the employee's identity until family members could be notified.

The train's conductor was injured and taken to a hospital. The second victim died at a hospital, said Lt. Michael Frank, spokesman for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, who did not give further details.

Gov. Mark Sanford declared a state of emergency for Aiken County, said his spokesman, Will Folks. Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt ordered a curfew for Graniteville from 6 p.m. today to 7 a.m. Friday.

Seventy people were treated for breathing difficulties and eye irritation at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, and 20 of them were admitted, Lt. Frank said.

In addition, may others were taken to University Hospital in Augusta, Lt. Frank said.

Ms. Terpay said the freight train was traveling at 49 mph, the railroad's self-imposed speed limit for that section of track, when it hit the parked locomotive and cars.

Sheriff's officials said the wreck occurred near the intersection of Marshall and Canal streets, just south of the site of a Nov. 22 car-train collision in which five Avondale Mills workers were killed.

Ms. Terpay said railroad officials did not know why the train struck the cars, which she said were on a siding next to the main rail line.

The two-locomotive train was hauling 42 cars, 25 of them loaded, including three that contained chlorine and others that contained sodium hydroxide and cresol, two less-volatile chemicals that could irritate the skin and eyes.

"It is not known at this time how many rail cars have derailed," said Ms. Terpay, who said the railroad was sending an accident investigation team and salvage and cleanup crews to the scene.

In the wake of the second deadly train accident in Graniteville in less than two months, Aiken County officials renewed their call for slower train speeds through the city and the other mill towns of the Midland Valley.

"It's obvious we're going to have to continue to push this forward to the front burner," said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, the chairman of the Aiken County legislative delegation. "We're going to push until we get that speed lowered."

Local and state officials have been hampered in the effort to reduce the speed limit on the line, which runs between Augusta and Columbia. An attempt by Aiken County Council to pass a speed limit ordinance stalled when the county attorney said they didn't have jurisdiction.

State transportation officials say they have no jurisdiction over the rail line, and federal railway officials say their only concern is whether Norfolk Southern meets the maintenance specifications for the Class 4 track, which has a maximum speed of 60 mph.

That means state, local and federal officials will have to lobby Norfolk Southern officials to lower the speed limit. Officials of Avondale Mills, which owns seven textile plants in Graniteville, including two that are adjacent to the wreck site, said they have joined the lobbying effort.

"You certainly assume that the railroad company would be motivated to improve safety in that area in the wake of these tragedies," said Stephen Felker, Jr., Avondale Mills spokesman. "There's an overarching need to improve the safety of that railroad line through Graniteville, and speed certainly is a factor."

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.


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