Two years later, S.C. town recalls morning of horror

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GRANITEVILLE, S.C. (AP) – Firefighter Clay Swearingen can still remember the morning two years ago when a toxic chlorine cloud released from a train derailment blanketed his truck and nearly killed him.

As he rushed to the fire station, he radioed his chief: “There’s a chemical, and I can’t breathe and it’s green.”

A train car carrying chlorine had ruptured and released a poisonous cloud over this tiny mill town, killing nine people and injuring 250. Some 5,400 people were evacuated. Swearingen recalls pleading for oxygen in an emergency room.

“It had to be the good Lord because I don’t know how I made it,” he said.

On Saturday, the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2005, derailment, Swearingen decided not to attend a candlelight vigil at the wreck site. He said, “I don’t know what it is, I get emotional.”

About 70 people however did gather at a separate ceremony at the University of South Carolina in Aiken for prayers and songs.

Two-year-old Steven Bagby Jr. held a small American flag as his father’s name was called from a list of victims. He was just 10 days old when his father, Steven Sr., died from chlorine inhalation.

Steven Jr.’s mother, Marie Schooler, said it was difficult to remember the day she lost her fiance and her son lost a father.

“He said to give his little son a kiss for him and he would be home in the morning,” she told The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. “He never called.”

The Norfolk Southern train had veered off the main track onto a spur, rear-ending a parked train whose crew failed to switch the tracks back to the main rail.

Hundreds of residents and Avondale Mills workers were injured in the spill and suffered property damage. At least one class-action lawsuit for damages and minor injuries has provided some relief, and another, more substantial settlement, is up for a federal judge’s approval Monday.

Norfolk Southern has paid claims to roughly 3,700 people and expects about 760 more to qualify for the most recent lawsuit, spokesman Robin Chapman said. There are still more than 100 lawsuits pending, though all but two of the wrongful death cases have been settled.

The railroad has paid roughly $41 million in claims and other expenses, Chapman said.

But the work of bringing back the town hasn’t been easy.

Following the wreck, the mill laid off thousands of workers. Company officials spent more than $140 million on repairs only to find that new equipment quickly corroded in a reaction with still-present chlorine.

On Friday, the employee parking lots were empty, the steam was gone and the once-familiar hum was silent.

“It’s just empty. Most of the people who lived in Graniteville at one time or another worked at the mill,” said Angela Harmon, 37, who was laid off in August. “I liked my job. I loved the people I worked with.”

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