The wreckage has long been cleared, the chlorine gas removed from the environment and the Avondale Mills plant now stands vacant.
The physical, emotional and economic scars from the Graniteville train derailment of Jan. 6, 2005, still exist, but on Saturday, more than 100 people came together at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Graniteville to reflect on the disaster and how the community is coming back from it.
“We don't forget,” said mistress of ceremony Donna Moore Wesby. “One of my favorite quotes is, 'There are two catalysts for change: vision or crisis.' Unfortunately, with this derailment, it was a crisis. But the beauty is that it ended up bringing the community together. It is our prayer that this community will continue to come together, not just in bad times but also in good times.”
In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2005, a Norfolk Southern Railroad train traveling through downtown Graniteville was inadvertently diverted onto a spur and violently crashed into a parked train.
The resulting crash derailed multiple cars and punctured a tank car carrying chlorine. The ruptured car sent tons of chlorine gas into the air, resulting in the deaths of nine people nearby. In addition to those deaths, more than 200 people were treated for exposure, and 5,400 Graniteville residents were evacuated from their homes for several days.
The town of Graniteville never fully recovered from that devastating day. Avondale Mills, the longtime economic engine of the community, later closed its doors, displacing some 1,000 workers. The company cited the train wreck and resulting damage to equipment from chlorine as a contributing factor.
“Yes, we want to remember our loved ones – we never forget our loved ones,” said Louisiana Sanders, of the Graniteville Community Coalition. “But we also don't want that tragedy to define the rest of our lives, or our community's life.”
The event included appearances by elected officials, including state Rep. Don Wells and state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom. The church's choir and the Dynamic Abraham Bros. performed, and the church's Praise Dancers performed a dance to symbolize “pressing on.”
Family members of the victims stood at the front and lit candles in memory of their loved ones, a bell tolling with each name: Steven Bagby, Tony Deloach, Allen Frazier, John Henry Laird Jr., Fred (Rusty) Rushton III, Christopher Seeling, Willie Charles Shealey, Joseph Lee Stone and Willie Lee Tyler.
Steven Bagby Jr., 8, lit a candle in memory of his father. He was just 10 days old when the train wreck happened.
“It was 3:15 in the morning when Steven called me,” Bagby's wife Marie recalled while speaking with a reporter. “When Stephen called me, I thought it was unusual because he had never called me at night before. He called me because he couldn't get through to 911, and he asked if I would keep trying.”
Bagby had gotten two co-workers out of the mill and told his wife he was going back in for a third co-worker.
“Recently, it's been rough because (Steven Jr.) is in Cub Scouts,” Marie said. “There are a lot of outings that dads need to go on, and I have to call my brother-in-law to go.”
Bagby's sister, Judy Bagby Lewis, said they've gotten through the past eight years “one day at a time.” She said they tell Steven Jr. about his father, and that he has pictures of his father around his room.
“We try to help him remember through us,” she said. “We have pictures, stories to tell – things like that.”
“We can't, and never will, forget those workers who were on the job, trying to earn a living for their families that night but never made it back home,” said keynote speaker and Aiken City Councilwoman Lessie Price.
Price acknowledged the derailment was devastating to the community but offered words of encouragement on the great things that have come to the town since, including the new Bridgestone plant, a new Family Y and the new housing developments Sage Creek and Trolley Run.
Price added that enrollment at Byrd Elementary is increasing, and that Byrd, along with Leavelle McCampbell Middle School received high ratings from the state on their report cards, while Midland Valley High School received the highest rating of any high school in Aiken County.
“I contend that 10 years from now, you won't know this town, and this town will be a big part of the state of South Carolina,” Price said. “It is in God's hands, and he's gonna direct it. He's gonna place the people in charge to lead that, and you better get on board with the people that are leading, or get out of the way.”
The Rev. Dr. James Abraham, minister of Bethlehem Baptist, was pleased with how the service went. He and his group, the Dynamic Abraham Bros., performed a selection at the end that they wrote about the train wreck. It depicts how God held the town together after the tragedy, and how God “arrested death – down at the railroad tracks.”
“It's gonna be all right, it's gonna be all right,” they sang. “Let me tell you, I know it's gonna be all right.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.