GRANITEVILLE, S.C. - Ten years ago, a train crashed here and a toxic cloud of chlorine gas from a damaged railcar settled over Graniteville. Plenty of people who were working at the nearby mill are still struggling to breathe. And the heart of the once quintessential Southern mill town is struggling to survive.
Nine people died on Jan. 5, 2005, when a train heading 47 mph through town made it to a switch that hadn't been turned the right way. The train barreled on to a spur serving Avondale Mills and into a parked train. A 2-foot long gash was ripped in a tanker car carrying chlorine, most of which vaporized into a hazy, greenish, bleach-smelling deadly cloud that slowly spread in the early morning calm.
Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton was awakened by a call from the sheriff less than an hour after the crash. The town of 2,700 was in chaos. People spilled out of their tiny, squeezed-together mill homes and into the toxic cloud. Some were crying, others were foaming at the mouth. Workers in the mill where the gas was the worst said they could see the color being bleached out of their clothes.
Chlorine turns into hydrochloric acid when combined with water vapor. Inside of moist lungs, that acid was burning holes and creating blisters. The body's reaction to send fluid to the area to assist in healing meant they were drowning in their lungs.
"There might be hundreds of people dead," Carlton remembers the sheriff saying.
Only nine names are on the granite memorial just yards from the crash. Volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene, many of them risking their own lives by helping people get out. Calm winds allowed the gas to settle into the valley by Horse Creek instead of spreading to the neighborhood nearby. The worst of the plume was over the mill, where eight of the nine dead were found.
A federal report blamed the crash on the crew driving the parked train. After putting it on the spur, they left because they were about to go over their 12-hour federally regulated time limit on the job and failed to move the switch back in position to keep trains on the main line.
The crash has meant long-term health problems for many. About 250 people reported immediate injury from the crash. Many more were exposed - 5,400 people were evacuated from the area near the crash.
A $3 million federal grant is helping fund the Graniteville Recovery and Chlorine Epidemiology Study. Doctors already had extensive records on the lung functions of workers at Avondale Mills to see if they were being affected by cotton dust. The study uses those records to see the extent of problems from chlorine gas exposure to those workers.
About 40 percent of the 300 mill workers tested have a significant decrease in the amount of air they can take in, likely because of scar tissue caused when the burns in their lungs healed, said Dr. Erik Svendsen of Tulane University, who is running the study. The affects are similar to emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Trains still rumble through Graniteville, right beside the main street, although now at half the speed. Many people in town don't like to talk about what happened. Chief Phil Napier, who led the volunteer firefighters that responded that day, said for years after the crash that people would pull into a nearby shopping center parking lot as soon as they felt a train's rumble to get a safe distance away.
Avondale Mills tried to reopen, but gave up less than two years after the crash, leaving more than 1,600 people out of work. The large mill buildings mostly remain shuttered, leaving downtown Graniteville in a struggle to survive. The town lost 4 percent of its population after the crash, while surrounding Aiken County grew by 12 percent from 2000 to 2010.
But there is bright news just outside town limits. Several subdivisions have been built a few miles from the crash site. A tire plant expected to eventually employ 850 people is 4 miles away and a company that recycles chemicals and parts from washing machines, refrigerators and other home appliances plans to open in one of the old mill buildings later this year with 200 workers.
"This town's not dead. It's resilient and will keep fighting back," said Napier, who represents the area on Aiken County Council.
Napier and his fellow firefighters plan to spend the time around the crash looking forward, by dedicating a new fire station. When they finally returned to their old fire station more than a week after the crash, practically every piece of equipment, including two fire trucks, were contaminated and unusable. Metal doorknobs had turned green and the stainless steel ice machine was rusted.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP