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 pileup took place at 2:39 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."
On Thursday night, State Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater, said at least eight people were dead - most of them workers at Avondale Mills. He flew over the site Thursday afternoon in a State Law Enforcement Division helicopter and said he saw a body slumped against a building of the Stevens Steam plant.
"When we flew over there was nothing moving," he said. "It was eerie. Cars were stopped dead on the street. It was like a scene from The Twilight Zone - not even a dog moving."
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 home 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.
Law enforcement teams totaling 100 officers entered the quarantined zone to conduct a house-to-house sweep of the neighborhood and point residents to one of four nearby shelters.
At least one evacuee, Richard DeMedicis, 40, of Howlandville Road, 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.
Aiken County Sheriff Mike Hunt also ordered a dawn-to-dusk curfew in a two-mile radius surrounding the wreck.
The 42-car Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train was traveling north when it slammed into a locomotive and two cars parked on a spur line, said Robin Chapman, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, but he would not comment on whether there was a switch malfunction or a switching error.
"We are profoundly sorry," Mr. Chapman said.
He said railroad workers will move the 26 undamaged rail cars from the track today, then begin to untangle the 14-car pileup.
Thom Berry, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said cleanup of the site could last into the weekend.
"They'll go very slowly; they don't want to mess up anything worse," he said.
The train's engineer died at a local hospital, and the conductor was injured, rail officials said. Their names have not been released.
Hospitals in Aiken and Augusta were crowded with more than 260 people who were evaluated, hospital officials said. Many were treated for exposure to chlorine gas, and 51 were admitted.
Investigation of the wreck is being headed by the National Transportation Safety Board, with assistance from the Federal Railway Administration.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said he saw another body near an Avondale Mills textile plant next to the wreck during an aerial tour, although that was not confirmed by authorities.
"They've seen dead dogs; they've seen dead fish; they've seen a variety of living things that have been affected by what's happened," Mr. Sanford said of eyewitness reports given him by law enforcement officers and rescue workers.
The governor, who declared a state of emergency for Aiken County, said he expected the death toll to rise.
Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan 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 train.
Aiken County sheriff's officials said the wreck occurred near the intersection of Marshall and Canal streets, just south of the scene of a Nov. 22 car-train collision where five Avondale Mills workers were killed.
The two-locomotive train was hauling 25 loaded cars, including the three that contained chlorine and others that contained sodium hydroxide - commonly known as lye - and cresol, two less-volatile chemicals that could also irritate the skin and eyes.
Fourteen cars derailed in the accident, Ms. Terpay said.
Debbie Hersman of the NTSB said the agency's 12-person team would investigate all aspects of the incident, including track maintenance, train crew records and the switch to the siding where the crash occurred.
Ms. Hersman said the area is a "no-signal territory" where the rail switches are manually operated, and investigators do not know who last set the manual switch.
The last person to operate the switch likely would have been one of the three people who worked on the train parked on the side track and went off duty after about 7 p.m. Wednesday, she said.
Ms. Hersman, however, refused to speculate on the cause of the accident, saying that federal officials have yet to examine the site because of the contamination.
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 Graniteville and 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.
"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 and son of the company's top official.
Mr. Felker said it would be Saturday before the company's seven area plants reopen.
Staff Writers Krista Zilizi and Josh Gelinas contributed to this report.
Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215. Reach Karen Ethridge and Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395.
A look at those treated at area hospitals as a result of the train wreck and chemical spill Thursday:
AIKEN REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTERS: 87 treated, with one dead and 11 admitted
UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: About 120 were seen, with 93 officially treated and others triaged and released. Twenty were admitted, with four in the ICU in serious condition.
MEDICAL COLLEGE OF GEORGIA HOSPITAL AND CLINICS: 29 treated, with nine admissions. One was in critical condition, two were in serious condition, four were in fair condition and two were in good condition.
DOCTORS HOSPITAL: 25 treated, with 11 admitted, including six at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center. Five were in critical condition and six were in serious condition.
ST. JOSEPH HOSPITAL: Five were treated, none were admitted.
Boundaries of the two-mile perimeter around the Graniteville wreck site:
North: South Carolina Highway 191, Trolley Line Road to South Carolina Highway 118
South: Pine Log RoadEast: State Highway 118 to Pine Log Road
West: Breezy Hill Road, Midland Drive; Legion Road to Pine Log Road
Evacuees were directed to shelters at South Aiken High School, Midland Valley High School, the University of South Carolina Aiken and the First Baptist Church of Aiken. Those outside the evacuation zone were advised to stay indoors with windows and doors closed.
Norfolk Southern Corp. officials have established a family assistance center at the First Presbyterian Church in Aiken. For information, (803) 648-2662.