AIKEN -- Porter Walker came to First Presbyterian Church in Aiken looking for help Friday morning.
Like many Graniteville residents, he hoped to receive a small stipend for food, clothing and lodging that Norfolk Southern Corp. officials were offering to an estimated 5,400 evacuees who were forced from their homes after toxic chlorine vapors saturated the community because of Thursday's early-morning train wreck.
But shortly after the 56-year-old accepted a $300 assistance check from the railroad company, he decided to return it. An unusual disclaimer on the back of the check made the Avondale Mills employee nervous.
The clause reads: "Endorsement of this check constitutes a full, final and complete release of all claims growing out of an accident occurring at Graniteville, 1-6-2005."
Although Norfolk Southern officials said signing the check wouldn't be a waiver on future claims against the company, Mr. Walker didn't believe it.
"This tells me they are trying to get out of something," Mr. Walker said. "If it don't mean what it says, why can't they cut a check that says this is a stipend to help people through this crisis? "
And an Augusta personal injury trial lawyer who specializes in toxic chemical tort cases said Mr. Walker's instincts were correct.
"They should not sign it," John Bell said. "They absolutely should not sign it. That would be a legal release you have settled your claim, and if it's too little, too bad."
Rob Fender, the regional claims manager for Norfolk Southern, said the fine print meant the assistance checks being issued over the next two days are compensation limited to evacuation expenses associated with the chemical leak.
The wording does not mean evacuees will waive their rights to file personal injury and property claims later by accepting the assistance checks.
"Personal injury claims cannot be resolved right now," he said. "If they do have personal injuries or damage to their homes, they can come back."
Hundreds of victims stood in line for as long as an hour, eager to collect an allowance to purchase necessities such as food, clothing and hygiene products.
"We only brought our shoes; that's all we had time to do, put on our shoes," said Tara McKie, who lives at Graniteville's Kalmia Apartments with her husband and three children. "The police came knocking on our door, and they told us we had 10 minutes to get on the bus waiting outside. We're going to Wal-Mart or Target to get the basics."
Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt said the delicate and dangerous process of cleaning up the wreck will keep them from their homes for between three and six days.
Mr. Walker isn't convinced the railroad company's intentions are sincere.
"Sure, I could have used (the check).... But I'll just sit and wait before I let a $100 billion company run over me."
Reach Krista Zilizi at (803) 648-1395. ext. 106, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norfolk Southern Corp. officials have established a family assistance center at First Presbyterian Church in Aiken. The assistance shelter will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and from 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday. For information, call (803) 648-2662.The checks being issued by Norfolk Southern to evacuees have this statement printed on them: "Endorsement of this check constitutes a full, final and complete release of all claims growing out of an accident occurring at Graniteville, 1-6-2005."
The checks being issued by Norfolk Southern to evacuees have this statement printed on them: "Endorsement of this check constitutes a full, final and complete release of all claims growing out of an accident occurring at Graniteville, 1-6-2005."