When Steve Seeling hears the clatter of an approaching locomotive, it reminds him of the son he lost.
Ten years ago, 28-year-old Chris Seeling died in a train wreck that left a small town gasping for air as deadly chlorine poured from a punctured rail car in Aiken County.
The younger Seeling, a railroad engineer, succumbed in the toxic fog as he tried to escape the worst railroad accident at the time involving a chemical spill. The crash killed nine people that morning, injured hundreds and, for years, siphoned the life from tiny Graniteville.
“Anytime I see a train go by, I’ll wave and say, ‘Hey Chris, how are you doing?’ ’’ Steve Seeling said last week. “It’s hard. It’s just really difficult to deal with, even 10 years later. Your life is changed.’’
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Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the train wreck at Graniteville, a textile community still haunted by an accident that few imagined could happen.
While Graniteville is rebounding economically with several new industries, the physical and emotional pain of Jan. 6, 2005, lingers for many.
Some people still suffer from decreased lung functions, the likely result of breathing high concentrations of chlorine from the wreck.
Textile mill workers who were exposed to chlorine after the accident are having more trouble breathing today than mill workers who were not exposed, according to research by Tulane University, the University of South Carolina and others. The findings are consistent with early research showing lung ailments immediately after the accident.
The workers “are not getting as much air,’’ said Erik Svendsen, a Tulane University scientist who is heading part of the studies. “It’s a consistent problem we are seeing.’’
Graniteville shook the morning of Jan. 6, 2005, when a Norfolk Southern train smashed into a parked rail car in the yard at Avondale Mills, the community’s major employer.
A railroad crew that had parked the rail car forgot to flip a track switch, causing the swift-moving Norfolk Southern train, engineered by Chris Seeling, to divert off the main track and onto a side rail. There, it collided with the parked tanker car, carrying chlorine. The tanker car ruptured, prompting a flurry of 911 calls from people afraid of the poisonous gas that blanketed Graniteville. All told, 11,500 gallons of chlorine seeped out.
“I don’t want to be alone; I can’t breathe,’’ an Avondale Mills worker told a 911 dispatcher at the time.
“My lungs hurt so much. Oh God! I don’t know if I’m going to make it or not.’’
Louisiana Sanders, 62, remembers that night clearly. The images are made more vivid by the impact the accident continues to have on her family.
Two of her brothers were hospitalized after the train wreck. Her youngest brother, who spent nearly a week in intensive care, had asthma as a child that has recurred since the train wreck, she said.
“We thought he had grown out of it, but then this happened and it started back up,’’ said Sanders, a former state health department board member. “He is always going to have issues, off and on, with his lungs and breathing.’’
Sanders’ youngest brother, now 50, unwittingly drove into the chlorine gas cloud after a late-night card game at a cousin’s house, she said. The game broke up when the sound of colliding trains echoed across Graniteville.
William Wright, the conductor of the train, worked alongside Chris Seeling, the engineer. He and Seeling scrambled from the train after the wreck, then staggered through the chlorine cloud in search of help.
Somewhere in the chaos, they were separated. Seeling died. Wright found rescuers who whisked him to a local hospital.
Today, Wright lives with his wife in a small home in the countryside of Newberry County, some 60 miles east of Graniteville. Like other victims of the crash, Wright won an undisclosed financial settlement with Norfolk Southern that paid some of his bills and expenses.
But money didn’t make him whole.
Wright, 51, said that while his lungs have improved, he still has scars from chlorine exposure that cause him to catch colds more frequently. He also has troubles with his knees.
“I used to be very athletic and work out at the gym, I used to run,’’ he said. “Now, I just walk.’’
Wright said he also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which sometimes causes him to awaken at night — anxious and upset. Wright has medication for the disorder, but that has a side effect: It makes him drowsy during the daytime, he said.
“It’s kind of hard to believe,’’ Wright said of the accident that changed so many lives. “It’s like it was unreal.’’
Others still are grieving for the loved ones they lost.
Elease Mathis, 63, said her brother-in-law, Leonard Mathis, suffered for months after the train wreck. He also encountered the chlorine cloud as he drove to the crash site to investigate, she said. The chlorine burned his lungs and emergency workers sent him to the intensive care unit at a local hospital in January 2005.
He eventually left the hospital, but three months later, he was readmitted. He died in April 2005.
Mathis said she and her husband, Charles, miss Leonard. The brothers shared a love of fishing, dropping a hook in the water together sometimes, she said.
“We will always remember, but we have hope in the Lord,’’ she said. Leonard “was a funny guy, a giving guy. He was easygoing. Everybody liked him in the neighborhood. My husband misses him.
“You just have to take one day at a time.’’
Despite the bad memories and lingering health effects, the unincorporated Aiken County community is making progress to recover after years of troubles, local and economic development officials say.
Within two years of the 2005 crash, Avondale Mills closed, taking with it more than 1,000 jobs that had kept Graniteville residents employed. The loss of the mills, the cornerstone of Graniteville since the 1800s, left the community on the verge of becoming a ghost town.
Small restaurants and shops across the street from the mill complex suffered because workers no longer were downtown. On weekdays, the main streets in Graniteville sometimes resembled what they once looked like on Sunday afternoons: roads with little traffic.
In the past five years, however, Aiken County industrial recruiters have found several new businesses for the area. Those businesses include an appliance recycling plant that uses one of the old Avondale Mill buildings.
Two major industrial plants also have cranked up in a nearby industrial park, creating some 650 jobs, with the possibility of more expansion, according to the Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda Economic Development Partnership. One of those is the Bridgestone tire factory touted by Gov. Nikki Haley and others as a major industrial prize for South Carolina.
Meanwhile, several big subdivisions have been developed near Graniteville.
“Graniteville will make it back,’’ industrial recruiter Will Williams said. “We are at the 10-year mark since the accident, and you are seeing dramatic changes from where we were. In the next five years, you are going to see more improvements.’’
Williams, president and chief executive of the Economic Development Partnership, said Graniteville is recovering because of his agency’s efforts and the resiliency of its people.
“The accident caused the community to come together and grow stronger,’’ he said.
Sanders and Mathis said they are optimistic about Graniteville’s future, although challenges remain.
“As a little small community, it’s coming back,’’ Sanders said. “But it takes time. We learned that. You can’t do it over night.’’
Although Graniteville’s economic recovery is important, the Seeling family says it will never erase the memory of what happened that morning in 2005.
The affable, down-to-earth Chris Seeling died doing the thing he loved, family members say.
Seeling, who lived in West Columbia, always was fascinated by the trains that whistled through Kansas City and the other communities where he grew up. He was so interested that, as a youth, he sometimes would sit by the railroad tracks, just to watch the rail cars go by.
After high school, he decided to go to a train engineering school so he could get a job with a railroad. The break he needed came later, when he landed a position with Norfolk Southern and moved to West Columbia to work for the railroad in South Carolina.
West Columbia resident Edward Blessing, Seeling’s younger brother by 10 years, said the sting of his death has dulled somewhat. But, he added, it never disappears.
There are times Blessing will think of something that his brother would have been interested in, only to shake his head sadly that Seeling is not around to hear about it.
The brothers developed a bond as they grew older. Seeling would invite Blessing on cross-country railroad trips. They also fished the rivers around West Columbia, where they lived, held family cookouts on holidays, and hunted together in the woods of central South Carolina.
Today, Blessing, 29, is married with a 3-year-old son. Like his late uncle, the 3-year-old loves trains. Blessing said that’s one of the hardest parts of losing Seeling.
“I wish my son could have gotten to know his uncle,’’ Blessing said. “We will talk about him sometimes, and my son recognizes Chris’ picture. He’s going to know his uncle was a special person.’’
Still, a picture is only an image, Blessing said.
Seeling’s death remains particularly emotional for his family when they visit Graniteville and see the site where he died, Blessing said. A monument near the railroad crash site honors the victims.
“Whenever we go down there, we always go out to dinner, so we can tell stories, have time around the table and raise a beer to give him a toast,’’ he said. “I looked up to him.’’
Steve Seeling, who pushed Congress to tighten rail-safety laws after the accident, said he has dealt with his son’s death by relying on his Christian faith.
“We know where Chris is, and we know we’ll reunite with him when our time comes,’’ the elder Seeling said. “We’ve tried to focus on the eternal ramifications.’’
Story by Sammy FretwellProduced by Chris Hessert and Matt Walsh