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Effects of Deadly Train Crash Still Rumble Through Town

A year later, people in Graniteville, S.C., say the release of chlorine gas damaged their health and harmed their property and businesses.

January 16, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. — A year after a train crash spread a toxic plume of chlorine gas through this small mill town, John Logan, a 60-year-old handyman, continues to inspect property damage.

Nails on a side porch are rusting, he noted as he looked at houses recently; a metal roof is stained with brown streaks, and the underside of a heating unit is flaking.

Inside many of the homes, residents describe headaches, breathing difficulties and memory loss.

Graniteville has not been the same since a Norfolk Southern train carrying pressurized chlorine gas crashed into a parked train on Jan. 6, 2005, killing nine people, injuring 240 and forcing more than 5,000 residents to flee the poisonous gas that seeped into their homes for days.

"Its been one thing after another," said Logan, an inspector for the Douglas Schmidt Law Office, which represents 600 residents and business owners who say the chlorine spill harmed their property or their health.

As a result of the corrosive gas, Patricia Courtney's clocks stopped telling time; Melinda Borst's television turned itself on and off; and the organ at Graniteville's First Baptist Church emitted sound erratically.

Many residents fear that this close-knit community will never recover from the train derailment, the deadliest train wreck involving hazardous material since 1978. They worry about the future of Avondale Mills, the vast industrial complex in the heart of town. In October, the company announced plans to lay off 350 workers and sue Norfolk Southern for "catastrophic damage" to its machinery.

Norfolk Southern has estimated that it will spend $39 million cleaning up the accident and paying legal claims.

"The chlorine damage is more insidious than anyone expected," said Stephen Felker Jr., Avondale Mills' manager of corporate development. Microscopic metal chloride salts, he said, continue to corrode electronic components and metallic surfaces throughout the company's 13-acre dyeing and finishing plant.

According to papers filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company had spent $52.5 million on cleanup costs by August, the end of its fiscal year.

Textiles have been the bedrock of this town's economy for 160 years. Before William W. Gregg built his mill out of granite -- one of the South's most successful antebellum cotton mills -- in this South Carolina valley, the area was known as Hardscrabble.

James Oscar Farmer Jr., a history professor at the University of South Carolina in Aiken, said poor Southerners flocked to Graniteville and its mill to escape backbreaking farm work.

Although community life no longer revolves around the mill as it used to -- in 1998, Bridgestone/Firestone constructed a tire manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Graniteville -- residents fear the town will deteriorate if the mill shuts down.

"We're crossing our fingers," said Robin Anderson, a 39-year-old Graniteville resident. "We've got to hope this won't become a ghost town."

Already, some residents say, they spend more time inside their homes.

"I don't hardly go to church," said Patricia Courtney, 65, who lives on Main Street, less than half a mile from the crash site. "I don't feel like going anywhere anymore."

Courtney has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a persistent obstruction of the flow of air out of the lungs, as a result of exposure to the gas.

What bothers her most, however, is memory loss.

"I'm just not smart anymore," she said. "Sometimes I just can't get all my thoughts together."

Louisiana Wright, who founded the Graniteville Community Coalition to assist local residents after the train crash, said many residents continued to smell chlorine.

"It might not be scientific," she said. "It might be in their minds. The problem is, we don't know exactly what chlorine does and doesn't do."

South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control has carried out extensive testing of Graniteville's soil, air and water and found no evidence of chlorine gas.

Within 48 hours of the crash, the department conducted an epidemiological assessment of about 300 people. Nearly 80% experienced symptoms such as severe coughing, burning eyes, chest pains, skin rashes, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

Jerry Gibson, director of the department's Bureau of Disease Control, said a follow-up of half of those people in the summer found that 80% continued to experience symptoms.

"There is not very good data on how long these effects last," Gibson said.

After the German army dispersed chlorine gas over Allied lines in 1915 in World War I, he said, some people experienced permanent lung damage; it is not known what proportion of people were affected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- which has not completed its study of Graniteville residents -- says people who are exposed to dangerous concentrations of chlorine are not expected to experience long-term health effects unless they suffer from complications such as pneumonia.

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