Graniteville train crash: 15 years later

by jovan1984

Graniteville — Fifteen years ago at 2:33 am, a loud boom suddenly changed a small west central Aiken County community forever.

That’s when two trains collided, causing a gigantic chemical spill that caused the community to be evacuated.

“They were local families,” Sheriff Michael Hunt told the Aiken Standard Friday, remembering the derailment and its effect on the community. “Some of them we were familiar with, so I think the loss of life is the first thing that comes to mind. It’s just sad we lost citizens, and our thoughts and prayers go with them today.”

Nine people, from the United States and Canada, died. Avondale Mills, a staple in Graniteville, eventually shuttered after corrosion from the spill damaged the work equipment.

The lives lost and affected was what the Chief of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, Charles “Chuck” Barranco, talked about to the Standard this past weekend.

“That was a major operation and one of the things that I find I’m most proud of,” said Mr. Barranco. “We responded into the area not knowing what to expect. We were able to successfully evacuate some folks out of their houses and have shelters in place.”

“It really wasn’t a question of who was in charge,” continued Mr. Barranco, who remembers the chlorine smell like it was yesterday. “It was something that just came together, not just the local agencies but state, federal and other agencies across the state and in Georgia to help respond. We evacuated a lot of people that evening. It was a proud day to be a first responder.”

“The chlorine was pretty potent.”

In a 2015 interview with the Standard, Troy Mills also said he remembered the chlorine smell. He used to work at Avondale Mills in the Gregg Plant. The Gregg Plant was one and a half football fields away from where the awful train crash took place.

“If you can imagine, it was literally like sticking your head into a bottle of bleach. It burned your eyes. It hurt to breathe,” he told the Standard five years ago in the newspaper’s Graniteville train disaster 10th Anniversary edition.

Mr. Smith noted that the despite the stronger than usual smell, it was familiar to him, because he worked at the dyeing and finishing plant where chlorine smells are common.

“We worked with bleach and enzymes and had bleach ranges where we actually bleached the cloth white,” said Mr. Smith. “When we started smelling the bleach, we thought we had a ruptured pipe. So, instead of trying to get away from the smell, we were actually going to the part of the plant where it smelled the worst to try to find it. It was probably 30 to 45 minutes after the train wreck before we realized it was something that had happened outside the plant.”

Mr. Smith remained to help his co-workers evacuate Avondale Mills and was one of the last to leave the building but collapsed from the chlorine fumes in the parking lot.

Mr. Smith, who didn’t remember being rescued, was taken first to a nearby fire station and then was transported to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, where he was treated for “chemical burns all the way down into my lungs” and damaged tear ducts.

Chlorine was unable to be identified as the toxin for almost an hour after the wreck, said Dr John E. Vena, the chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He outlined some of the results of health studies conducted on people exposed to the chlorine leak.

Lung function dropped significantly, and the chlorine exposure caused damage to the lungs, continued Dr. Vena. Chlorine exposure led to increased blood pressure. Victims also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and women and trans wonen in particular exhibited a tendency to panic.

Dr. Vena said people affected by the train crash and subsequent chlorine spill still need primary care and continued assessment.

“That means continued support for their pulmonary health, blood pressure testing and long-term impacts on cardiovascular disease,” he said. “That means that in Graniteville there is a need for primary care with the knowledge that these folks were exposed in the past.”

Sheriff Hunt said it is important to never forget about train derailment, the nine men who died and its impact on Graniteville and its residents 15 years later.

“I think any tragedy we cannot forget,” he said. “Our community went through a lot. We lost citizens, and we evacuated about 5,700 folks who stayed out of their houses for quite some time. It was a major event for this community, and we can’t forget what this community went through or the citizens that we lost.”

Aiken Standard