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Graniteville: five years later, a town trying to heal

GRANITEVILLE - The whistling wind and the rumbling of an occasional train are about all you can hear in Graniteville these days.

Five years after a horrifying rail crash and chemical spill, the community is eerily quiet.

A hulking textile mill that once employed the residents stands silent, its machinery turned off as a result of the spill. Businesses once frequented by mill workers either have closed or are struggling to stay afloat.

"Graniteville has gone way down," said Sam Quiller, a retired maintenance worker who, as a teenager, had a job at the mill. "It's not only quiet; it's like a ghost town. There's nothing here."

The legacy of the train wreck and chlorine spill always will be the nine people who died and the hundreds of others injured when chlorine leaked from a rail car and turned into a deadly, corrosive cloud. Community leaders plan a 4 p.m. service today at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Graniteville to remember the victims.

But townspeople say the Jan. 6, 2005, accident also robbed Graniteville of its economic lifeblood - Avondale Mills. The mill, actually a series of plants in the heart of Graniteville, shut down less than a year after the accident, leaving about 1,600 people out of work. Only a small part of the old company remains open, under new management.

The mill complex had been in operation for 161 years, dating to before the Civil War.

Gone now are the workers who would pour into the streets of the unincorporated village during shift changes or at lunch. Often, they would stop and buy goods at nearby stores or eat at Graniteville restaurants. It made for a lively community, residents say.

DISASTER, DOWNTURN

Graniteville Fire Chief Phil Napier, who runs a hardware store across from the mill, said he doesn't think the plant's closing was solely caused by the train accident. The textile industry has been downsizing for years, he said. But Napier said he's sure the chemical leak contributed.

Avondale officials, who could not be reached Friday, have said the chemical accident caused enough damage in the mill to close the facility. Chlorine, a corrosive and toxic gas, affected machinery needed to run the plant.

The wreck occurred when a speeding freight train ran off the main track and onto a spur to the Avondale plant. The Norfolk Southern train crashed into a parked locomotive, causing a tanker to spill chlorine. A toxic cloud floated through the textile mill and the surrounding community, killing and injuring people who came in contact with the chlorine gas.

The accident happened after rail workers forgot to flip a switch back into position.

"As devastating as the train derailment itself was, when Avondale Mills closed, we lost roughly 1,600 jobs," Napier said. "Economically, it affected the whole area."

Norfolk Southern didn't say whether it believes the crash caused Avondale to shut down. The railroad company was the target of a flurry of wrongful death, personal injury and property damage lawsuits, including one from Avondale Mills.

But in a statement Friday, Norfolk Southern said it has tried to help the community.

"As our people worked with the people of Graniteville to help them deal with the aftermath of the accident, we quickly acquired a deep respect for their resiliency and strength of character," the company said.

MORE UNEMPLOYED

Statistics show Aiken County - although it has one of the state's lowest unemployment rates - has suffered since the train wreck and resulting chlorine leak. The county's jobless rate has risen from 5.7 percent in January 2005 to about 9 percent today. Statistics for Graniteville, which has just a few thousand residents, were not available Friday.

"You can't lose almost 2,000 people out of a company that has been in the community since 1845 and not have an impact," Aiken County industrial recruiter Fred Humes said.

Nonetheless, Humes and Napier are optimistic Graniteville will come back and residents will find jobs. Many people have been retrained - through government and community programs - to find new jobs. Statistics on how many workers had found jobs since the mill closed were not available Friday.

Humes thinks much of the old mill complex can be used for manufacturing or other businesses.

Since Avondale closed, a distribution center has moved into the warehouse of one of Avondale's biggest buildings, the Gregg plant, Humes said. Leaders may have another economic development announcement soon, he said.

Many of the plant's major buildings remain empty. Much of the property has been acquired by developer Weldon Wyatt and his partners, Humes said. Some buildings could be converted into specialty shops, condominiums or restaurants that would attract tourism to historic Graniteville. A steam plant is expected to be torn down, he said.

Wyatt was unavailable Friday.

Before extensive redevelopment happens, community leaders need to know the extent of contamination on the mill site. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $200,000 grant to assess the impact the chlorine spill had on the property, part of which has dozens of above-ground storage tanks. Such tanks often contain fuel that can leak and pollute groundwater.

'TOUGH LITTLE TOWN'

Community leader Louisiana Wright Sanders said Graniteville "is a tough little town" and she believes it is on the mend, even though that could take years.

Sanders said it has been a struggle for the community since the 2005 train wreck and chemical spill. Her sister-in-law suffers continued health problems from exposure to chlorine. Her brother lost his job after working at the plant for 40 years. He walked to work every day.

"My brother was just getting to the age when he would soon be able to retire and have all his benefits. But then everything got messed up when that happened."

Since the crash, much of the property damage caused by the chlorine cloud has faded in other parts of Graniteville. Many homes have been repaired; some have been sold. Trains carrying chlorine even come through town, but at sharply lower speeds.

And across Canal Street from the accident site, community leaders have erected a monument commemorating the nine people who died in 2005.

Meanwhile, the mill looms silently down the street.

"That mill is a reminder of the lives and the jobs lost," Sanders said.

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