Originally created 02/06/05

Graniteville recovery process continues



GRANITEVILLE - On one side of St. Paul's Episcopal Church are lingering reminders of a deadly crash site. On the other are mills where hundreds of workers fled for their lives on that frantic morning one month ago.

The same chlorine that claimed nine lives and injured hundreds Jan. 6 also seeped into St. Paul's, where it tarnished brass crosses, offering plates and candelabras. It also corroded wiring throughout the church's offices and its chapel.

The church's junior warden, Otis Melton, said repairs could have been complete by this morning. But it's too soon for some, and members will worship elsewhere again today.

"I think it's going to take people awhile," Mr. Melton said. "The unknown is really pretty frightening."

A month after the crash of Norfolk Southern train 192 - one of the country's deadliest train crashes in 30 years - Graniteville residents are still working their way back toward something akin to normal.

At Blue Top Grill, things seemed almost like old times last week.

Regulars, who were kept away for nearly two weeks after the accident, eagerly ordered the diner's popular hamburger. Except for the occasional cleanup worker hired by Norfolk Southern, most of them knew each other by first names. The mood was light.

"I thought I was going to have to come in here and get an IV of french fry grease," said Steve Bell, who's lived in Graniteville since 1970. "You think getting off drugs is hard. You try getting off these hamburgers."

Mr. Bell is like many in the community, trying to put the tragedy behind them.

"I wouldn't live nowhere else," he said. "It's got that Mayberry-type atmosphere."

There are other signs of normalcy returning.

Smoke billows from stacks at Avondale Mills, which, like everything else, had been shut down. All of the company's employees have been invited back to work, though repairs are still being made at the Woodhead, Gregg, Hickman and Stevens Steam plants.

Children are going to school. The laundry mats and gas stations that were lifeless are now energized with patrons.

Basic necessities such as fire protection are still in place, though under strained conditions. The Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Volunteer Fire Department lost an estimated $750,000 in firefighting equipment. Insur-ance inspectors have yet to decide whether the department's headquarters near the wreck site is salvageable.

The department is using equipment from two of its substations outside town and a truck on loan from the Belvedere fire department. A temporary headquarters has been set up on Ascauga Lake Road in the old community services building.

"They knocked the breath out of us, but we're still breathing," Chief Phil Napier said.

Others in town are still struggling, trying to cope with what unfolded and the feeling of helplessness it left behind.

Reminders of that night are inescapable.

Bushes near the wreck site that are normally green this time of year are pale and dying because of chlorine exposure. At least two buildings near the site are empty, the exteriors bleached. One of them belongs to a doctor; the other to Avondale Mills. Residents speculate the buildings might be torn down.

Repairs near the wreck site aren't complete. Commercial cleaning crews, distinguished by their white vans, stick out like sore thumbs as they bounce between the remaining homes that need decontamination.

The train track has been rebuilt, but roads around it have been clobbered, either from the crash itself or the heavy machinery needed to clean it up.

Johnny Colyer grew up in and around Graniteville. His cabinet business is a block from the wreck site and sits across the street from a wooded park.

The parking lot has become a turnaround for sightseers.

"If I had a dollar for every time somebody pulled in that parking lot, I wouldn't have to build any cabinets," he said.

Ralph McGee's house on Rocktown Drive is one of the closest to the wreck site, about two blocks away. He heard the trains slam into one another. He drove through the thick, yellowish clouds of gas, fleeing for his life.

The faint smell of chlorine still lingers in his house. It will go away with time, he's been told, but he fears the memory of that night won't.

"We were at peace here. We had a good life," he said standing next to his Chevrolet Lumina that was destroyed by the gas. "My wife, now, when the trains come by, she becomes unglued.

"I don't know if we can stay here or not."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.