Originally created 01/10/05

Mill tries to ease pain of workers' families

GRANITEVILLE - The tiny town of Graniteville is deathly silent - an unusual sound for a town that is normally buzzing with the sounds of machinery and the drone of tractor-trailers at its plants.

The mills that are the life-blood of the town of 5,400 are coping with the second loss of life in two months. A train accident took five lives in November 2004, and the train wreck and chemical spill claimed nine more lives last week, six of whom were Avondale Mill employees.

"We're going through something we've never been through before," said Steve Felker Jr., 26, the spokesman for Avondale Mills. "To have lost these associates is an enormous tragedy."

The town of Graniteville was founded because of the mills built by William Gregg nearly 150 years ago. Many of the original mill houses and some of the original church buildings that surrounded the first Graniteville Co. mill still stand or have been rebuilt.

Avondale Mills, which took over the mills in 1996, employs 2,500 workers. But the train wreck and chemical spill last week halted operations at all the plants in Graniteville, meaning the company, which also has textile manufacturing plants in Georgia and Alabama, has cut its production in half.

Operations at the plants that normally run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, will be suspended until Wednesday morning, Mr. Felker said. But Mr. Felker, a fifth-generation employee with the Monroe, Ga.-based company, said the biggest loss isn't dollars but the lives of the employees who were members of the Avondale mill family.

Six employees died as a result of inhaling toxic chlorine gas:

 •  Willie C. Shealey, 43, of Graniteville, was found dead in a wooded area near the Woodhead plant.

 •  John Laird, 24, of North Augusta, was found dead in a wooded area near Woodhead plant.

 •  Fred "Rusty" Rushton III, 41, of Warrenville, was found dead on a loading dock of the Stevens Steam plant.

 •  Allen Frazier, 58, of Ridge Spring, was found dead in an office at the Gregg Division.

 •  Steven W. Bagby, 38, of Augusta, was found dead in a break area at the Gregg Division.

 •  Willie Tyler, 57, of Aiken, was found about 25 feet inside an entrance to the Woodhead Division plant.

Mr. Felker said his father, Steven Felker Sr., the chief executive officer of Avondale Mills, has been at the forefront of the relief efforts, to try to ease the pain of workers' families.

"He is a very strong leader," Mr. Felker said of his father. "He is distraught by the deaths. This is his life's work, and he feels a large sense of responsibility."

As of Saturday, Mr. Felker said Avondale Mills had not been able to assess any damage to the plants. On Saturday, there was a search of the plants to look for people who might have sought refuge inside.

Although it could take weeks, Mr. Felker said, the company will rebuild.

"We will never be able to recover from the loss of life in both of these tragedies," he said. "But we will have it up and running again."

Avondale Mills

Employees: 2,500

Mills in Graniteville and Warrenville: Gregg, Woodhead, Hickmant, Swint, Townsend, Horse Creek, Warren, Stevens Steam, Sage Mill

Products: Yarn, denim, khaki and other fabrics, specialty materials for life jackets, and covers for ironing boards

Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109 or karen.ethridge@augustachronicle.com.


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