Originally created 11/10/05

Graniteville crossing remains perilous

GRANITEVILLE - Sometimes, Mary Mack wonders what would have happened if she'd stayed home that day.

If she hadn't gone to New York, she might have been the one to drive her son, Michael, home from his job at an Avondale Mills plant.

If only, she and her granddaughter wonder.

If only a railroad crossing guard rail had come down to stop traffic for an approaching train.

Then maybe the driver of the car Michael Mack was riding in would not have tried to beat the Norfolk Southern train headed for the crossing at Ascauga Lake Road and Canal Street.

The train wouldn't have slammed into the passenger side of the four-door Buick, killing five people - Michael, 39, and four of his textile co-workers: Connie Bodie, 26; Tammy Wilson, 36; Nathaniel Hay, 21; and Monica Myers, 41.

Two other cars had slipped past the train before the fatal wreck.

"They should have had something there," Ms. Mack said. "When that first car went by, something should have come down to stop the next one."

Despite outrage after the crash about the lack of gates at public railroad crossings in Graniteville - and much of South Carolina - the most drivers will typically see to warn them of oncoming trains are the familiar railroad cross signs, flashing lights and bells.

To some, that's not enough.

"It's been a year and still no guard rails," said Phil Napier, the chief of the Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Fire Department.

"There's nothing been done to correct that crossing," he said.

He said Norfolk Southern did voluntarily slow its trains from 49 mph to 25 mph after the other major train wreck in Graniteville - the Jan. 6 collision with another locomotive that spilled chlorine, killed nine people, injured hundreds of others and forced the evacuation of thousands.

But that came only after 14 people had died, he said, and the gates are still needed.

"How many more people have to be killed before that gets done?" he asked.

None of the eight railroad crossings in Graniteville have gates, but that's not unique to this small Aiken County town.

Just 28 percent of public railroad crossings in South Carolina - 820 of 2,920 - have gates that stop cars for an oncoming train.

Each state's transportation department is responsible for installing safety devices at the crossings.

Standard signals with gates, flashing lights and bells would cost at least $150,000, said Darrell Munn, rail and research engineer for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Every crossing has a bell to warn pedestrians, Mr. Munn said, but not every one has the flashing lights to warn drivers.

The DOT has each crossing in the state prioritized to decide which one gets upgraded, using federal formulas that include the past five years of accident statistics, traffic volume and the crossing setup.

Mr. Munn refused to release the prioritized list of crossings, but according to a report done by the Federal Railroad Administration on congressional orders, the crossing where those five died is one of the 10 most potentially fatal crossings in the state.

That report was issued in February 2002 - more than two years before the deadly crash.

Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said state DOTs may not agree with the list, and many, including South Carolina, did not cooperate with the study.

The railroad administration also cannot force DOTs to bump those crossings to the top of the priority list, he said.

"The FRA and federal government - we do not have legal jurisdiction to mandate to states where improvements should be made," Mr. Flatau said.

But, he said, the study "should and presumably did spur discussion in those states about these crossings."

The crossing has been the site of 14 train-car collisions since 1979, although the deadly crash a year ago was the first fatality, according to Federal Railroad Administration records.

But statewide, the number of people killed at railroad crossings in 2004 more than doubled from the previous year, from five to 12.

There were 42 collisions, and 19 of those resulted in injuries. Five of the wrecks were fatal in 2004, according to Mr. Munn.

Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, pushed for the gates to be installed shortly after the wreck last year.

He said this week that he's still determined to get the crossing arms put in not only in Graniteville, but also at the crossing on Storm Branch Road, which he called a "very unsafe crossing."

"We have been working and talking with the proper folks about improving the overall safety of trains in Graniteville and gates being one of those," Mr. Smith said.

"The bottom line is we're not going to let go until we get it done," he said.

Mr. Napier said he doesn't see many people speed through crossings to beat trains anymore.

In fact, there's such a "fear factor" in the town now that many drivers will cruise down a side street to avoid even sitting idly by while a locomotive passes through the crossings, he said.

"If you get bit by the dog one time, you don't step back in the pen."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.

Deadly scene

In February 2002, the Federal Railroad Administration released a report listing the 10 railroad crossings in each state with the highest "fatal accident prediction factor."

In South Carolina, the Ascauga Lake Road and Canal Street crossing in Graniteville made the list.

Since 1979, the Ascauga Lake Road-Canal Street crossing has been the site of 14 train-car collisions. The crash last year was the first one in which someone died.

Source: Federal Railroad Administration


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