Chlorine Gas Still Lingers From South Carolina Train Wreck That Killed Eight

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. (AP) -- Townspeople and nightshift workers at a textile mill heard the scrape of metal and a house-shaking boom. Then, in rolled a greenish-yellow fog that smelled powerfully like bleach, searing their eyes and lungs and making them cough and gasp.

``I took a breath. That stuff grabbed me,'' said Charles Reyes Littleeagle, a volunteer firefighter who ran to the scene. ``It gagged me and brought me down to my knees. I talked to God and said, `I am not dying here.'''

At least eight people died and more than 250 were sickened after a freight train carrying toxic chlorine gas crashed early Thursday in one of the nation's deadliest chemical spills in years.

Authorities said all of the deaths appeared to have been caused by the plume of gas that settled over its victims in their homes, their cars and in the textile mill complex. One of the dead was spotted by Gov. Mark Sanford, who flew over the site to survey the wreckage.

About 5,400 residents within a one-mile radius were forced to evacuate. Authorities told people Friday they would not be allowed to return for three to seven days. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed within two miles of the wreck for fear that the cool night air would cause the chlorine to settle close to the ground.

With one ruptured tanker continuing to leak the deadly gas and the possibility of another leak from a second damaged tanker, rescue workers in protective suits searched for a worker still missing from the Avondale Mills textile plant.

They also went door to door to find out whether there were any more deaths or injuries.

The crash happened about 2:30 a.m. when a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying 42 cars struck a parked train at a crossing next to the textile plant, where 400 workers were on the night shift making denim and other fabrics.

Five workers died at the mill. One man was found dead in a truck near the plant, and another man was found in his home. The train engineer died at a hospital. Autopsies showed all died of chlorine inhalation.

"I saw a green mist coming toward me,'' machine operator Rodney Johnson told the Aiken Standard. ``I stepped up to see what it was and ran to my supervisor. He said to get them out.''

Johnson said he piled co-workers in his truck and drove to a hospital.

``It tore me all up,'' Johnson said. ``My eyes burned and lungs hurt. I couldn't breathe at all. All I could think about was breathing and getting to rescue.''

Mill spokesman Stephen Felker Jr. said some mill workers alerted supervisors to an overwhelming bleach smell and urged other workers to get away. "Dozens and dozens of heroes were made,'' he said.

Volunteer Fire Chief Phil Napier met up with two members of the train crew after getting the call. As the men spoke, one told Napier he was having trouble breathing, then collapsed. That was when the smell hit the fire chief.

"I had to drive off and leave him on the ground,'' Napier said Friday, his bloodshot eyes filling with tears.

As he pulled away, he said, he saw the bodies of mill workers lying outside, but there was little he could do without protective gear and an air supply.

Federal officials were investigating the cause of the wreck, but most officials were kept out of the area because of the toxic gas.

Sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank said 30 percent to 40 percent of the contents remained in the leaking tank, which can carry up to 90 tons of liquid chlorine under pressure. The material turns to gas when released.

Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton identified the dead on mill property as Willie C. Shealey, 43, of Graniteville; John Laird, 24, of North Augusta; Rusty Rushton, 41, of Warrenville; Allen Frazier, 58, of Ridge Spring; and Steven Bagby, 38, of Augusta, Ga.

Joseph L. Stone, 21, of Quebec, Canada, was found dead in a truck near the plant and Tony DeLoach, 56, was found dead at his Graniteville home, Carlton said. The train engineer, Christopher Seeling, 28, of West Columbia died at a hospital. No one was aboard the parked train.

Federal officials were investigating the cause of the wreck, but the level of toxic gas at the site kept most officials out of the area.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said Friday that his company had helped overnight to move 25 cars that had not derailed away from the site. Two cars were rerailed, and five damaged cars were moved away from tracks.

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