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Mill Town Still Paying for Accident

Posted By admin On September 1, 2010 @ 6:40 pm In | Comments Disabled

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Phil Napier’s hardware store is the kind that has been largely replaced by Walmart Supercenters and Home Depots. A toy fire truck rests on a shelf lined with certificates of gratitude for the man who voluntarily mows the grass by the memorial the town erected to remember the crash victims.

A dusty lantern from the mountains of Tennessee and an eagle figurine, both rescued from his wife after she threatened them with the garbage bin, are tucked across from a row of silk flowers. He knows everyone who walks through the door.

He’s friends with Diane Goodwin Gunter, who stretches the word “Facebook” to four syllables when she talks about the pictures she’s posted of her grandsons. The delivery boy whom Napier says can come back with change the next day. And the older woman with curly hair whom he whispers is bossy.

Some of the people who come to the store are involved in class-action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern as a result of the accident. They’re looking for someone to pay for what happened to Graniteville.

They can’t forget the blistered and browned grass and shrubs. The thousands of dead fish that floated down from Horse Creek and collected, bleached and stinking, in Langley Pond. The cost of evacuating and then returning to homes and businesses in need of paint and repair.

Most damaging of all, the Avondale Mills textile plant was never able to recover. Its computers were corroded, its metal equipment mottled and encrusted with salts from the chemicals.

Operations had to be shut down for nine days after the crash, and a fire stubbornly raged at the Stevens Steam plant for a week. Avondale Mills limped along for 16 months and then announced it would close. Nearly 2,000 people lost their jobs as well as their pensions and health insurance.

Delayed Consequences

For 40 years, Louisiana Sanders’ brother, Porter Wright, walked to work every day for his job as a machine operator at Avondale Mills. He was 61 years old when the crash happened. The mill’s closure left him with no retirement benefits or health care.

When he got ill with a painful nerve condition in his legs that required medication and a walker, he was unable to pay and too young to qualify for Medicare. “He ends up not getting the medicine he needs each month because he can’t afford it,” Sanders said. “I asked him how he’s doing and he says he just has to endure the pain.”

Sanders’ other brother, Joe Wright, unknowingly drove straight into the toxic chlorine cloud that hovered over the center of town after the wreck. Seeing police, he rolled down his window to ask what was going on and immediately collapsed.

Wright was taken to the University of South Carolina Aiken, where he sat with other victims on a stoop, medical attendants passing oxygen back and forth among them. Then he was bused to the hospital, where he spent five days in intensive care. Today, Wright still has lung problems. Sometimes he feels as if he can’t catch his breath, and has trouble breathing when he’s trying to sleep.

“It will affect him for the rest of his life,” Sanders said.

Someone should have to pay for all that damage, people reasoned. Sanders said “everybody” filed lawsuits.

Some faulted the train crew that had parked the locomotive outside the mill and left the switch in the incorrect position. The NTSB accident investigation revealed that instead of putting the switch back in the normal position, they rushed off work so as not to violate federal rules that limit the workday to 12 hours.

The brakeman of that crew, James Thornton, testified that he wasn’t sure he had put the switch back to the main position.

“I had in it my mind, I was going to go do that, but I am not 100 percent sure that I did,” he told the NTSB. “I would say I might have made a mistake.”

Others blamed Norfolk Southern. But the lawsuits brought on behalf of the employees who lost their jobs at Avondale Mills were largely unsuccessful. The courts found that in order to hold the railroad accountable for the plant’s losses, it would have to be directly connected to the mill’s economic wellbeing. Norfolk Southern legally didn’t owe the unemployed workers or the company owners anything.

Graniteville residents admit the mill was already in a bad position economically, steadily losing business to foreign competitors.

“Avondale blamed the factory going down on the railroad but it would have gone down on its own,” said Rob Lowe, who lives with his wife just a quarter of a mile from the crash site.

About a month after the accident, his wife started hacking and coughing and had to be put on oxygen. When she was admitted to the hospital, nurses said she’d developed asthma due to chlorine inhalation. She had to stay for a week.

Lowe couldn’t sue Norfolk Southern to recoup the money he owed the hospital because he had already signed a release saying he wouldn’t sue.

In the days after the accident the railroad gave out no-strings-attached assistance such as restaurant and hotel vouchers and Wal-Mart gift cards, said Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman, who handled the public relations response on-site. But once the company packed up its makeshift center in Aiken and set up a more permanent site to handle claims, it shifted its approach. Chapman said the company continued to reimburse people for evacuation expenses, but recipients had to agree not to take part in future lawsuits related to the accident. Lowe signed the paper.

“If you settled with them that was it,” Lowe said. “They were pretty smart to offer $4,000 or $5,000 to settle. They knew everyone would jump at it.”

Trying to Recover

Without admitting fault, Norfolk Southern settled a lawsuit in March brought by the Environmental Protection Agency for damage to the fish and vegetation around Horse Creek. The railroad agreed to pay $4 million in damages for spilling chlorine, diesel and other materials. It also agreed to conduct hazardous materials training for crew members, and to re-stock the creek with fish.

The people in Graniteville will see little of the Norfolk Southern money, however. It will go into two accounts instead, one under the EPA, another technically under the Department of Homeland Security.

After the crash, Napier talked to State Sen. Thomas Moore about appropriating money to fund a memorial to victims of the accident.

South Carolina legislators agreed to set aside more than enough money for the memorial – $340,000 for what they called the “Graniteville Recovery Effort.” But since the little town was unincorporated, the money was funneled through the Aiken County government. Less than a third made it to Graniteville.

“Not one nickel is coming back to the town, where the damage was done,” Napier said. “The town got nothing.”

Even if Graniteville had received the money, and the $4 million to boot, it still would have absorbed millions of dollars in losses. The FRA estimated the cost of the Graniteville train wreck at close to $190 million. And that didn’t include everything.

There was no cost estimate for the cross on the church steeple that had to be replaced because of damage due to acid rain.

It didn’t factor in the new response vehicles that the Fire Department had to purchase after the wiring on the old ones was corroded by chemicals.

And it didn’t factor in treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder that Erik Svendsen of the University of South Carolina estimated affected 41 percent of those screened by the Aiken County Health Department.

Svendsen is planning a new study this fall to determine whether the lungs of Graniteville residents are aging faster than normal because of chlorine inhalation.

Sanders, who founded the Graniteville Community Coalition to help the town recover, isn’t sure people will want to participate in the study. She knows how much the residents want to forget that the wreck ever happened.

Like them, she wants to see Graniteville become “a bustling little town all over again, like it used to be.”

And like them, she wants something done to prevent accidents like the one that has so traumatized her hometown – no matter the cost.

“If one person dies, to me it’s worth it,” she said. “I know that is not the political way they look at it. They’re looking at dollars and bottom lines. But I’m looking at life. It’s priceless.”

Sept. 26, 2010

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