Firefighter faces a struggle for breath

Volunteer ran to chlorine spill, suffered major lung damage


Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Volunteering for the Graniteville, S.C., area fire department runs in Dwayne Gray's family.

So the 35-year-old man didn't pause when he heard the downtown firehouse siren about 2:40 Thursday morning. He ran to his pickup and drove one block to the train wreck in the center of the small town. His brother-in-law was ahead of him in another truck, his father-in-law behind him in a third truck.

The men drove into a toxic cloud of chlorine gas leaking from a punctured tanker. Gray recognized the greenish tint from his hazardous materials training.

"No one could be prepared for it," Gray said.

He slammed on his brakes and began backing up the hill with his hand pressed on the horn, signaling to his family to evacuate. But Gray didn't escape quickly enough.

By the end of the morning, Gray's lungs had collapsed and he was under critical watch at the Medical College of Georgia system in nearby Augusta, Ga. The family spent that night tensely watching whether his lungs would recover enough to hold oxygen.

He's survived, but Gray's medical battle may be just beginning. Respiratory therapist Brian Meister said Gray and others acutely injured from inhaling the toxic gas could experience long-term reduced lung capacity.

Over the weekend, about 30 victims remained in area hospitals. Gray's brother-in-law, Clay Swearingen, and his father-in-law, Benjamin "B.W." Swearingen, also went to the hospital with breathing problems, but both have been released. Some area residents, including the elder Swearingen, have gone back to the hospital more than once with persisting pains.

Gray, who is the only volunteer firefighter hospitalized after the wreck, said he will probably never be able to fight a fire again. A lower lung capacity may mean he's relegated to desk work and training.

"I ain't probably going to get no better," said Gray, who's been volunteering since he was 16. "It's going to take six months for the chlorine gas to get out of me."

Still, Gray said he would respond to the wreck just as quickly if it happened again. He's thankful his family escaped safely.

Gray's 9-year-old son, Michael, remembers hearing the wreck and the honking from his dad's horn. Standing at the law enforcement command post earlier this week, Michael said he wants to be just like his dad.

He wants to be a firefighter.