Chlorine Gas From South Carolina Train Crash Kills Nine

AIKEN, South Carolina, January 10, 2005 (ENS) - Nine men have died after a 42 car Norfolk Southern freight train slammed into a parked train on a side track in the small town of Graniteville, South Carolina early Thursday. Fourteen cars on the moving train derailed, including three chlorine tank cars, one of which leaked a cloud of deadly green gas.

Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said Saturday that eight of the deaths resulted from inhalation of chlorine gas from the leaking tank car. The exception is the engineer of the moving train, who died in the crash.

Six textile mill workers, along with the train engineer; a truck driver and a man who was found in his Main Street home, died of chlorine inhalation, Carlton said.

Officials are concerned about the whereabouts of several other workers who are still missing.


Chlorine gas escaped from a tank car ruptured when a moving train slammed into a parked one in Graniteville, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Aiken County Public Safety)
Besides the nine fatalities, at least 234 people went to area hospitals, most with respiratory illness from inhaling chlorine gas. Of the 58 people admitted, 38 were still in hospital Saturday, five in critical condition.

Authorities ordered all 5,400 people within a mile of the railroad crash to evacuate in the afternoon because the chlorine was still leaking from the tank car, forming a choking, toxic plume. Officials say many residents will not be able to return to their homes before Wednesday at the earliest because more chlorine could still leak from the tank.

Crews have used plastic sheets to temporarily stop the leak, but the chlorine is expected to penetrate the plastic shortly. Sodium hydroxide was pumped into the damaged tank car to change the chlorine to a chemical similar to household bleach, that can be pumped into tanker trucks. Crews must also remove the chlorine from the other two tank cars - one is damaged, but not ruptured.

A two-mile no entry zone around the crash site imposed Thursday was changed to a one-mile radius Saturday night, but Hunt said the no entry zone will remain in place until at least Wednesday.

“There is a potential for another release,” Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt said at a press conference Saturday, after meeting with hazardous materials experts.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said Saturday that chlorine concentrations at the site remained at "unsafe levels." Each of the three chlorine cars was fully loaded with about 90 tons of pressurized liquid chlorine, Hersman said.

Thom Berry, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said that as of Friday night, an estimated 60 to 70 tons had escaped from the leaking car, leaving it about one-third full.

South Carolina Governor Governor Mark Sanford and the Aiken County Council have declared states of emergency to provide maximum assistance with the aftermath of Thursday's train collision in Graniteville. Resources have been mobilized from many agencies within Aiken County, across South Carolina, and from Georgia to provide medical, decontamination, and security services. Cleanup is expected to take several days.

The U.S. Transportation Department and the Federal Railroad Administration sent nine experts to the scene to assist the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation.

The team, which includes the department’s top railroad hazardous materials expert, also will conduct a separate investigation into the circumstances surrounding the breach of the chlorine tank car to determine precisely how the derailment led to the release of chlorine gas.

"We are concerned about the nature of the incident and the tragic loss of life and are committed to a thorough review in order to ensure the safe operation of the railroad and the well-being of residents living in the Aiken community," said Robert Jamison, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Chlorine Institute, a trade association, activated CHLOREP, its Chlorine Emergency Response Plan, and dispatched an emergency response team trained in handling chlorine to the accident site. The team is working with the NTSB and state and local officials. "The Chlorine Institute is offering assistance to the South Carolina Governor's office," said President Kathleen Shaver. 'The Chlorine Institute wants to understand what caused this tragedy so it won't happen again."


Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt (Photo courtesy Aiken County Sheriff's Department)
Crews worked Sunday to plug the leak that sent green clouds of gas over the surrounding mill buildings and residential neighborhoods.

The FBI is investigating the position of a switch that controls access to the siding. It was in the wrong position when the moving train hit the stationary train that had been parked on the siding for more than seven hours.

The moving train was heading from Augusta, Georgia to Columbia, South Carolina. The crash site is just 20 minutes away from the Savannah River Site (SRS), a federal Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear research and storage facility. Early Thursday morning, SRS sent a four man hazardous materials team to help with searches and evacuations, said DOE spokesman Bill Taylor.

Local Graniteville, Aiken and Augusta responders had benefited from training with the SRS crews. Aiken officials also took advantage of SRS computers, which calculated weather conditions to predict where the chlorine cloud might drift, Taylor said.

Shortly after the crash and evacuation, Norfolk Southern established a temporary emergency Local Assistance Center to handle payment of expenses and losses to people impacted by the accident.

"It is our intent through the settlement of claims involving incidental expenses, inconvenience, evacuation costs and substantiated property damage to ease the impact of the accident and evacuation on the community," the company said in a statement. Settlements of these claims "does not preclude submission of personal injury claims, claims for subsequently incurred incidental expenses, and unforeseen property damage claims in the future," the company stated.

All claims will be handled by the local Norfolk Southern claims office. Claims can be presented at the company's Local Assistance Center in Aiken while it remains open. Call 642-7119 or 800/230-7049.

Or contact Thomas Tate, Senior Claim Agent, Norfolk Southern Railway, 1770 Andrews Road, Columbia SC 29201, Phone: 803-733-3993; Fax: 803-733-3936.

This is the second deadly train crash in Graniteville in the past two months. In November, five mill employees were killed when their car was struck near the same location by another Norfolk Southern train.