Toxic Train, Deadly Crash


Deadly chemicals may be passing by your home or school as hundreds of thousands of toxic tank loads crisscross the nation on trains each year.

On Jan. 6, 2005, Graniteville, S.C., experienced a toxic train crash that changed the town forever.

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Maggie Adams went to work at 5 p.m. to start her overnight shift at Avondale Mills, a textile plant located near the railroad tracks that run through the center of town.

Adams was a computer operator in the information services building, just yards away from the tracks where trains were traveling at speeds of 50 mph. Not only was the plant near the tracks, but so were homes and a school.

Adams had said to her boss, "If these trains don't slow down, they're gonna end up derailing and landing on top of me."

There were nearly 200 people working on Adams' shift. Steve Stein and Sonny Morris, steam plant workers, were just a few feet away from the track.

They remember suddenly hearing a screeching, thunderous explosion of crunching metal. Two trains had crashed, leaving 16 cars derailed.

One car had a punctured tank of poisonous gas.

Adams remembers smelling smoke and immediately calling 911.

"I thought [the train] was gonna come through the wall behind me," she said.

Witnesses described a rolling yellow-green blanket of poison invading the town like something out of a science fiction movie.

"I thought my eyelashes had come off. If I breathed too deeply, it burned like, I guess, like drinking gas," said Adams, who was trapped in her building at the time.

Calls poured into 911 from the nearby plant and from houses, with people complaining of everything from "We can't breathe" to "He's got blood coming out of his eyes."

Adams remembers praying on her knees, asking, "God, what is this?"

What burst out of the train was chlorine -- 120,000 pounds.

It is widely used in chemical plants, as a bleach and to purify water. The compound is so deadly, it was used as a weapon in World War I.

"It was like breathing in fire … like being buried alive with no air," Morris said.

Desperate for fresh air, people started running for their lives.

Meanwhile, the Graniteville Fire Department had to call for outside help because it had no protective hazmat suits and air packs were in the fire station, which had been engulfed in the deadly chlorine cloud.

Although Adams was told to wait inside for help, she says it got so bad, she couldn't wait any longer.

She left the building. Her car was so engulfed in the chemical cloud that she set out on foot.

"I took my lab coat, and I wrapped it around the bottom of my face and I would take real shallow breaths. I was so scared to go out of that building, but I knew I was dying if I didn't," Adams said.

"I felt like it was the end of the world. There was nobody. No cars."

Finally, after three hours of wandering around, Adams collapsed.

Saving the People

Adams was rescued on the outskirts of town, while co-workers were still on the roof of the nearby steam plant, gasping for air in the noxious cloud.

Fortunately, Morris and Stein were rescued by their supervisor, Tim Friar, who was equipped with a breathing apparatus.

"I hadn't seen anything like it before in my life. I'd never been that scared before in my life," Friar said.

Later that morning, hazmat teams made it to the crash site.

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