Donna Petrey got a call just after 8 a.m. Wednesday from her son, telling her the chemical plant across the street had sprung a leak.
“I grabbed my 7-year-old grandson, Hunter, and our dog, Oreo, and put them in the car,” she said.
At the end of the driveway, she glanced left and was stunned.
“It looked like a huge cotton ball. It was so thick, you couldn’t see anything through it,” said Petrey, 50, who lives across from Tanner Industries, just south of Swansea in Lexington County.
Petrey didn’t know it, but a motorist already had driven into that cloud — a vast poisonous mist of a deadly chemical called anhydrous ammonia, typically used in cleaning products — and hadn’t made it out.
Jacqueline Patrice Ginyard, 38, of Wagener couldn’t get her car out of the fog and tried to flee on foot, according to the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. Her body later was found next to her car.
Wednesday’s leak also sent seven people to area hospitals and prompted the evacuation of numerous nearby homes. By late afternoon, roughly 20 homes were being tested for contamination, though authorities found none.
The leak at Tanner Industries is believed to be the worst chemical accident in South Carolina since a chlorine spill killed nine in 2005 near Graniteville.
The accident rocked the small town of Swansea, causing some of its 1,000 residents to say they were lucky no more people were hurt.
There wasn’t much wind Wednesday, and the fact that it was blowing away from town probably prevented a major evacuation, Mayor Ray Spiressaid.
“We are very fortunate,” said Spires, who was almost caught in the cloud. “When you think about these things, you don’t think about it in your area.
“This one hit home.”
‘I WAS SCARED’
Many residents who lived near the plant fled the area after seeing the ammonia cloud or receiving telephoned warnings from friends and neighbors who heard early news reports or saw the cloud.
There is no official early warning system around the chemical plant.
Chuck Lubic, 39, who lives about 75 yards north of the plant on U.S. 321, got a call shortly after 8 a.m. from his longtime neighbor, Art Myers, telling him to get out because the chemical plant “had erupted.”
“I said, ‘No, get out of here, you’re kidding,’” said Lubic, who thought Myers was kidding. Lubic then got a call from another friend who told him to get out. As he left the house, Lubic found his dog, Boo, a boxer, vomiting.
He threw Boo into his Dodge Ram pickup and fled.
Looking south toward the plant as he left, Lubic said he saw a huge yellowish cloud covering the road.
“I was scared,” he said.
He and other witnesses said the thick part of the toxic fog just missed his house.
His dog was lucky, too. A veterinarian who checked out the dog said he should return to normal in a day or two.
Thom Berry, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said a tanker truck was pumping the ammonia into tanks at the plant when the leak occurred about 8 a.m.
A fist-size hole was later found in the hose that extended from the tanker, he said.
Roughly 1,800 gallons escaped the tanker, turning into a cloud that covered much of the plant and wafted through the air across U.S. 321 near the intersection with S.C. 3, Berry said, closing traffic along U.S. 321 until after 2 p.m.
The tanker contained 7,500 gallons.
An agency employee on his way to work saw the poisonous cloud, Berry said, and used his car in an attempt to block traffic until authorities could arrive. Berry also labeled one of the tanker drivers a hero for risking his life to shut off the leak from the truck.
The tanker, Berry said, had been driven from Tampa, Fla.
John Post, a safety manager with the Pennsylvania-based Tanner Co., said his company didn’t own the tanker.
Tanner is a national distributor of ammonia products with 19 offices nationwide and about 120 employees — 10 at the Swansea plant.
Jim Knight, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said investigators will try to determine whether work safety rules were violated. Tanner has no previous history of safety violations with his agency, he said.
The state Labor Department and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are investigating. Tanner also is sending a team to South Carolina, Post said.
Late Wednesday afternoon inside the deserted chemical plant — a space the size of three football fields enclosed by a 7,000-volt electrified fence — were about a dozen white cylinders the size of tractor-trailers labeled “anhydrous ammonia.” Three railroad chemical tank cars on a CSX rail spur were nearby. One was labeled “anhydrous ammonia — inhalation hazard.”
Around a one-square-mile of Tanner were hundreds of dead or damaged plants and trees. The poison mist had turned their leaves black.
‘SHE LOVED HER KIDS’
Ginyard, a home health care worker, apparently was on her way to work when she came upon the poison, said her first cousin Nancy Ginyard.
Known as “Treecie,’’ she was a graduate of Wagener Salley High School and the mother of two teenagers.
Her 16-year-old learned about her mom’s death when authorities visited their house to inform her Wednesday morning, Nancy Ginyard said.
Ginyard died quickly from ammonium poisoning, according to the Lexington County coroner’s office. Her death was ruled an accident.
Officials said the thick poison mist likely caused her car’s motor to conk out before she fled the vehicle.
A few breaths of ammonia can scorch a person’s lungs and kill. Mild exposures can leave people with lasting respiratory problems. But once in the air, it can dissipate fairly quickly.
Those who were injured were transported to Lexington Medical Center for treatment, Lexington County sheriff’s spokesman John Allard said.
The seven suffered “mild respiratory problems and felt dizzy,” hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson said. Two had been released by mid-afternoon; the status of the others was unknown late Wednesday.
Both Nancy Ginyard and a cousin-in-law, Barbara Ginyard, said Treecie Ginyard will be missed.
“She was a nice lovely person,’’ Nancy Ginyard said. “She loved everybody, was a churchgoing woman. She loved her kids and loved to sing. If she could do you a favor, she would do it.’’
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483. Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach John Monk at (803) 771-8344.
Vicinity of chemical spill
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