Residents Displaced by Chlorine Gas May Be Kept Away Longer

Thousands of people evacuated last week when a train crash unleashed deadly chlorine gas might not return home Wednesday, as had been hoped.

AIKEN, S.C. — Thousands of people evacuated last week when a train crash unleashed deadly chlorine gas might not return home Wednesday, as had been hoped.

And if residents want their homes tested for lingering chlorine residue -- which Norfolk Southern says it will offer to do -- the wait to return could be even longer. It's not clear how many structures need testing or how long that might take.

Work began Monday to siphon liquid chlorine from two train cars believed to be undamaged, a process that could take two days. It could take longer to remove chlorine from a third car that ruptured. Each pressurized tanker carries 90 tons, or 16,000 gallons, of liquid chlorine and was fully loaded.

Aiken County school officials were to huddle with emergency workers today to determine where and when 2,900 students could return to class.

Six schools were closed by the leak.


"This incident is nowhere close to being over, but progress is being made," Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt said. "If we rush our professionals, it's a recipe for disaster."

Emergency officials first estimated the evacuation after Thursday's 2:40 a.m. crash would last four to seven days. But the complexities of cleanup and testing could mean a longer delay.

A one-mile zone around the wreck site was evacuated; authorities say 5,492 people live in the affected area.

Railroad workers on Monday afternoon laid 100 feet of temporary track alongside the wreck site, spokeswoman Susan Terpay said. They expected to begin pumping the liquid Monday night from the two undamaged tankers, a process that could take 24 hours for each car.

Draining the ruptured car is more tedious. Sodium hydroxide is being pumped into the damaged car, where it bonds with the chlorine gas to form bleach. The bleach is then pumped out.

A temporary patch over a fist-sized hole in the ruptured car was holding Monday, but workers were attempting to affix a permanent steel patch overnight.

Emergency officials will not rescind the evacuation order until all the chlorine is removed, Hunt said. Then, testing of air, soil, water and homes will begin.

Thom Berry, spokesman for the state Division of Health and Environmental Control, said the spill likely would not affect groundwater. All affected soil will be removed, he said.

The wreck occurred when a 42-car Norfolk Southern freight train heading from Augusta to Columbia slammed into a parked train on a siding next to the Avondale Mill. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are focusing on a manual switch that routed the train onto the siding.

In downtown Aiken, Graniteville and Warrenville residents lined up at the First Presbyterian Church to file claims with the railroad for living expenses.

About 200 people jammed the church auditorium at one point Monday afternoon, while a line of 100 or so snaked out the door.

Residents, some of whom waited for up to three hours, left with checks for food, clothing and other necessities. The railroad removed a disclaimer on the checks after residents questioned whether it would prevent them from future claims.

Monday's trip was the second for Tiffany Roundtree, 24, and her fiance, Mario Mazone, 23. They received checks for $525 and $410 to pay for hotel rooms and clothes and food for the couple and her two children.

"We left with just the clothes on our back and an extra outfit," Roundtree said. "I don't think this is enough for what we're going through. But it will have to do."

The S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles reported several people had attempted to change their addresses to the affected area, Aiken County Sheriff's Department spokesman Lt. Michael Frank said. No arrests were made. "But if they do try (to receive benefits), they will be arrested and prosecuted," he said.

Terpay said about 2,000 people had received assistance.

Louis Morris, 26, was at the Avondale Mill when the wreck occurred. The gas cloud drove him, vomiting, from the mill. He ran to safety, leaving his car there.

"I just want to know if they can do anything to help me. I don't have transportation." Morris, a cloth puller in the dye shop, said he was shaken by the incident, but would likely return to work. "I'm nervous, but, yes sir, I'll go back. I have to make a living."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News