Have you ever been stopped at a train crossing and noticed the number of cars carrying hazardous materials and gases? And do you take a deep breath and hope that the train passes without incident?
On the morning of January 6, 2005, I was watching the early news before going to work. A TV reporter from our local station was “in the field” and discussing a chlorine gas disaster in Graniteville, a small mill community not far from Aiken. An improperly lined switch caused a collision between an oncoming train and one that was parked at Avondale Mills at about 2:40 a.m. One of the tank cars carrying about 90 tons of chlorine ruptured in the collision and released about 60 tons of the gas.
The Graniteville disaster is the largest chlorine gas disaster to date in the United States. The impact was devastating. Nine people died, more than 250 were treated at nearby hospitals for exposure to the chlorine and 5,400 community residents within one mile of the accident site were forced to evacuate for about two weeks while Graniteville was decontaminated. About 16 months later, the Avondale Mills plant in Graniteville closed, and the loss of jobs further added to the community’s sense of anguish and loss.
In the initial days and months after the tragedy, Arnold School of Public Health researchers began studying the impact of the disaster on the health of people in the area. One of the most recent studies, the RISE Project (Restoration in Graniteville through Supportive Engagement) has examined the long-term impact of the disaster on the physical and mental health of community residents.
The results of the study, released earlier this month, show that the community developed a sense of closeness after the disaster. Concerns about health and well-being remain, but community residents found a cohesiveness that didn’t exist before, said Dr. Lucy Annang, an Arnold School researcher who is one of the study’s lead investigators.
The RISE project found that even eight years after the disaster people are still having issues with recovery and healing, Annang said.
But without question, the findings of the RISE project will be beneficial for other communities who face disaster.
The voices from Graniteville are being heard.