GRANITEVILLE -- One by one, carloads of families rolled through law enforcement checkpoints this morning, allowed to return home after a week of living in hotels and with family and friends because of a mandatory evacuation from a one-mile ring around the wreck of Norfolk Southern Train 192.
At 8:30 a.m., law enforcement officials allowed about half of an estimated 5,400 evacuees into three Graniteville neighborhoods on the fringes of that ring.
Returning residents were armed with "how-to" packets that explained how to air out homes possibly contaminated by plumes of deadly chlorine that spewed out of a ruptured tanker car during last week's early-morning wreck. They were also given pink tags to hang on doorknobs, a signal they wanted technicians from either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or an environmental contractor hired by the railroad to provide a free monitoring check of their homes.
Fresh air drifted through the open front door and windows of the Wilson residence at 106 Hillview Drive in Graniteville as the house was opened for the first time in a week Thursday morning.
Krystal and Phillip Wilson and their two children Ariel, 11, and C. J., 7, have spent the past seven days with family near Aiken. Once at home, and the family's dog, Gypsy, accounted for, Mrs. Wilson said things were starting to get back to normal.
When the Wilson family found out that they could re-enter their house at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, they were waiting at a nearby roadblock checkpoint at 8:25 a.m. with identification in hand.
"I know that it makes us appreciate being at home and the little things you take for granted," Mrs. Wilson said. "Vacations are wonderful but this wasn't a vacation. We were scared to stop watching TV because we wanted to know what was going to happen next."
For Lew and Deborah Dill, who live just up the road at 143 Hillview Drive, their biggest concern was the 13 dogs they breed, 12 of which were kept inside their house during the evacuation.
"I couldn't get a good night's sleep worrying about her babies," said Mr. Dill of his wife's chihuahuas. "They're like members of the family."
Although a few of the dogs were a little dehydrated and had diarrhea, he said all had been taken to local veterinarians and were expected to be fine. Although the house would need a little cleaning on the inside, he said that everything was starting to fall into place.
"It was handled well, and I feel sorry for people closer to the accident," Mr. Wilson said. "I know this brought our community together, but I'm sorry that it takes a tragedy like this to bring people together."
Pat Glenn, who lives in Senior Village Apartments off of Rock Town Drive in Graniteville, said she was eager to return to her home on Thursday afternoon.
"I'll be a lot more comfortable when I get home," said Mrs. Glenn who left her house last week with only a few items of clothing and the medicine she would need. "I didn't realize how serious it was at first. And I've had some wonderful friends who have reached out to help me."
Bethlehem Baptist Church, in the heart of the hot zone, is still closed and about 50 of its 125 members still haven't been allowed to go back into their homes, said church member Edie Corley-Stone. For the past week, she has been checking on elderly church members who have been evacuated from their homes.
"They're very concerned if they are going to have a home to go back to and it's kind of hard to explain the situation to the elderly," said Mrs. Corley-Stone, 50, of North Augusta. "We are really seeing agencies and other members of the community open their doors to those families."
Mrs. Corley-Stone, who grew up in Graniteville, said that this has pulled the small milltown community together and her church family together.
"We're going together through this one day at a time," Mrs. Corley-Stone said. "But it will take a lot of prayers to put this community back together."
With the successful transfer of an estimated 220 tons of chlorine from three damaged tanker cars completed Wednesday evening, Aiken County Sheriff Mike Hunt lifted portions of the evacuation corridor to let residents into three neighborhoods on the north, west and south side of Graniteville.
To the north, police checkpoints were withdrawn to the intersections of Laurel Drive and Trolley Line Road with Gregg Highway. To the south, checkpoints were moved to the intersection of Graniteville's Main Street with U.S. Highway 1 , allowing residents to enter neighborhoods south of South Carolina Highway 421. And to the west, checkpoints were moved back to Ergle Street in Graniteville, allowing homeowners to enter neighborhoods off Hillview Drive and Ascauga Lake Road.
Sheriff Hunt said residents' return to their homes would take place in stages, with the evacuation zone being gradually withdrawn to neighborhoods closer to the so-called "hot zone" around the wreck. The sheriff, who lives on Laurel Drive, is also an evacuee and said the decision to keep residents out of their homes while salvage workers performed the dangerous and delicate task of patching a leaking tanker and transferring chlorine out of all three cars was difficult.
"A lot of these people I know," he said. "I had to displace people, even my own family. We want to get their lives as close to normal as possible."
Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109 or firstname.lastname@example.org