Train Crash in S.C. Releases Toxic Gas

Jan. 7, 2005
A Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine as well as several other toxic chemicals crashed into a parked train at the Avondale Mills Textile Plant in the small town of Graniteville, S.C., early in the morning of Jan. 6, causing nine deaths, hundreds of injuries and the evacuation of the area.

Authorities say that more than 240 area residents sought medical treatment for exposure to and unknown amount of spilled chlorine gas. Eight men including the train engineer, six Avondale Mills workers, the driver of a car near the crash site and one man in his home died from what authorities believe was exposure to the gas. Autopsies are planned.

Thousands of residents were evacuated in the hours after the crash, with only about a dozen remaining in their homes. Some were convinced to leave by sherrif's deputies, who asked holdouts for next-of-kin should they be found dead.

"I didn't want to die in the night," admitted Margie West, who suffers from asthma.

Rodney Johnson, a night-shift worker at the textile mill where the crash occured and where five workers were killed, told local newspaper the Aiken Standard that he smelled a strong chlorine odor around 2:35 a.m. and opened a door to see a green mist heading toward him.

"I stepped up to see what it was and ran to my supervisor," said Johnson. "He said to get them out."

Johnson said his eyes and lungs burned from the gas, and he drove himself and several coworkers to the nearby Aiken Regional Medical Centers.

Investigators initially were hampered by the continuing presence of chlorine gas, and the presence of other hazardous chemicals, including sodium hydroxide, on the train was an additional concern. Jim Southworth is leading a Go-Team from the National Transportation Safety Board, and investigators from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, as well as the railroad and other federal, state and local agencies are on site.

Said Norfolk Southern spokesperson Robin Chapman, "We are profoundly sorry. We will do everything within our power to ease the pain that this situation has created for the residents of Aiken County."

The company opened a local assistance center to help residents who have incurred loss, inconvenience or personal injury as a result of the accident. Residents who come to the center will be able to speak with Norfolk Southern officials and representatives from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. The center is located at the First Presbyterian Church, 224 Barnwell Ave. NW, in Aiken. The company is providing financial assistance for meals, hotels and other expenses for residents who were displaced by the leak.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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