Train derailment shakes Graniteville in 2005

The scene in Graniteville shortly after two Norfolk Southern trains crashed on Jan. 6, 2005, spilling chlorine gas and killing nine people and forcing hundreds to evacuate.

It's been 13 years since the Graniteville train derailment claimed nine lives and displaced more than 5,000 residents from the area.

On Jan. 6, 2005, about 2:40 a.m., a 42-car, three-engine Norfolk Southern train crashed into a parked two-car, one-engine Norfolk Southern train, near the Avondale Mills plant in Graniteville, causing a deadly chlorine spill. 

The wreck occurred due to an improperly aligned switch, and one of NS Freight Train 192's tank cars – loaded with 90 tons of chlorine – ruptured, releasing about 60 tons of the gas. About 30 percent of the load was recovered by industrial responders.

State and federal officials made flyovers as the toxic chemicals blanketed the many homes, churches and schools below, and polluted the waterways and destroyed vegetation.

Aiken Department of Public Safety Chief Charles Barranco was not chief when the wreck occurred, but he was with the first group sent into the area after the derailment.

"At first, we didn't know if it was an accident or an intentional event," Barranco said. "We were sent in, and there were cars just left open in the street, from people fleeing the area; but the team I worked with were the people I work with everyday, and we were trained for the situation."

Barranco said they had to crawl underneath the train to get to the location they were trying to get to, and he and other first responders ended up saving a whole family from a pickup truck.

"It's definitely something I will never forget," Barranco said. "The most impressive thing to me, though, was seeing all the first responders working together to get the job done."

Roger Boyd, 67, a lifelong Graniteville resident, said the disaster was something he hopes to never have to experience again in his life.

Boyd worked for the Graniteville Company in the mill for 29 years before leaving a few years before the crash occurred; he said he received a phone call about the wreck that morning and went out to warn other people.

"It was only a couple of hours after the wreck that I drove right through the middle of it," Boyd said. "It was horrible. The strongest bleach smell you've ever smelled in your life. I could not breathe. It cooked my breath, and I was gagging by the time I got out of there."

Boyd said one word could sum up the way the town looked following the crash, "eerie."

"The area was completely deserted," he said. "I then grabbed my family, and we left. We were evacuated from our home for eight days."

Nine people lost their lives immediately, and another died not long afterward.

Those who died due to the derailment were Steven W. Bagby, 38; Tony M. DeLoach, 56; Allen Frazier, 58; John Laird Jr., 24; Fred "Rusty Rushton III, 41; Christopher Seeling, 28; Willie Charles Shealey, 43; Joseph Stone, 22; and Willie Lee Tyler, 57.

“It was the largest population exposed to chlorine gas in United States history,” said Dr. Erik Svendsen, the principal investigator for the Graniteville Recovery and Chlorine Epidemiology Study Center, in a 2015 interview with the Aiken Standard.

“There were 7,000 people within 2 miles of the accident, and the massive plume of gas went well beyond that. At least 1,400 people sought some sort of medical care,” said Svendsen, who was based at Tulane University in New Orleans. “People as far as 18 miles away downwind were affected and were treated in emergency rooms.”

Tripp Girardeau is the crime and courts reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @trippgirardeau.