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4.1 What Happened

4.1.1 Incident

At 2:39 in the morning of January 6, 2005, the first 911 call was received with reports of a large screeching sound, a bleach smell in the area, and respiratory distress.

The fire chief of the Graniteville, Vaucluse, and Warrenville (GVW) Fire Department was paged at 2:40 with the report of a possible train hitting a building, but no mention of a possible chemical leak. The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office and Aiken County Emergency Services were also either paged or phoned regarding the incident.

There was a head-on collision between a northbound Norfolk Southern 42-car train (25 loaded and 17 empties) and a stationary 11-car train at a recorded speed of 41 miles per hour (mph). The accident was caused when a manual track switch was left in the wrong position. After moving the train onto a sideline track, Norfolk Southern crew failed to reset the manual switch so that another train would stay on the main line. Hours later, the train that was on the main track hit the parked train on the sideline track and the train consist derailed and chemicals were released.

Initial responding agencies from Aiken County included the GVW Fire Department, Aiken County Emergency Medical Services, Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, Aiken Department of Public Safety, and Aiken County Emergency Management Division.

The GVW Fire Department arrived on the scene and reported a green cloud and an inability to breath. The fire chief was exposed to the chlorine spill while arriving on the scene, advised no entry of the immediate area and within 15 minutes of the incident, made a recommendation for an evacuation.

A hazardous materials team and emergency medical services were needed on the scene due to the nature of the chemical spill and a report of victims at the scene. The GVW Fire Department explained, “Local resources (were) exceeded very early.”

It was later determined that five of the derailed cars consisted of tanker cars of hazardous materials: three cars of chlorine, one car of sodium hydroxide, and one car with a residue of elevated temperature liquid, NOS (rosin). Other materials released included clay from hopper car and diesel fuel from the locomotives. Other hazards included power lines and downed trees.

As a result of the incident, there were 9 fatalities (one in a residence, one train crew member, six plant workers, and one subcontractor while making deliveries), 552 treated injuries, and 69 patients admitted to local hospitals.

Exhibit 2 presents an approximate timeline of the incident.

Exhibit 2—Timeline for Graniteville Incident
Thursday, January 6, 2005



First 911 call received


Fire, Sheriff, and Emergency Services Departments paged


Red Cross, Aiken, South Carolina contacted


Doctors Hospital, Augusta, Georgia, notified of incident


School district officials notified and decision made to close schools prior to activation of the emergency operations center


Initial news release on incident issued by Aiken County Sheriff’s Office


First shelter opened in decontamination center


911 system delivers message of shelter-in-place to residents


Governor Mark Sanford declares a state of emergency in Aiken County


Sheriff imposes a curfew from 18:00 to 07:00 for Graniteville residents living within a 2-mile radius of the incident site


Sheriff’s fact sheets inform residents to stay at home, close doors/windows and turn off ventilation systems


911 system delivers message to residents to evacuate

Shortly after 16:00

Evacuation and well being checks by Aiken County Sheriff’s Office


Evacuation and well being checks completed

Saturday, January 8, 2005

Pet unification plan implemented

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Most shelters closed

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Some schools reopened

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Some residents allowed to return home and could request a home inspection for air quality

Friday, January 14, 2005

Additional residents allowed to return home and could request a home inspection for air quality

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Additional residents allowed to return home and could request a home inspection for air quality

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rail line reopened: residents allowed to return to their homes and remaining schools reopened


By state law, due to the type of incident, the GVW fire chief was the incident commander. However, there is a discrepancy between the fire chief and the sheriff as to who was the acknowledged incident commander. In responding to the incident, the fire chief drove through the chlorine cloud and needed to drive off due to chlorine exposure. The Aiken County sheriff saw the need to assume command, and he did. This caused friction between both parties that was eventually settled.

The Director of Emergency Services (Director ES) of Aiken County made the decision to shelter-in-place. Initially, he was unsure what the gas was, but suspected chlorine. Later, in consultation with others at the incident command center, based on interviews, it was either the fire chief or the sheriff who made the decision to evacuate.

A unified incident command system was established, but there was difficulty in pinpointing when this occurred.

Due to the nature and extent of the incident, assistance was provided by 111 agencies ranging from the GVW Fire Department, Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, Aiken County Emergency Services, South Carolina Emergency Management Division, South Carolina Highway Patrol, United States Coast Guard (Coast Guard), American Red Cross, Aiken COBRA team, and City of Aiken Animal Control. A listing of the entities involved, from the Sheriff’s Office Web site, is located in Appendix 3. Approximately 600 federal, state, and local personnel participated in the response to this disaster.

4.1.2 Evacuation

911 System

The 911 center received calls from residents of smoke and gas coming into their homes. Residents were told if they could safely leave their homes to drive to Aiken, South Carolina. There was a mix of people leaving and others sheltering-in-place.

In addition, the train derailed next to an Avondale Mills facility. Plant workers received exposure to the chlorine, requested assistance from 911, and were told to leave work.

The Aiken County 911 system used a Reverse 911® to contact residents and businesses about the incident. The 911 system was used to inform residents in the 1-mile zone of the need to shelter-in-place on the morning of the incident; but, at 16:00, the system was used to inform residents of the need to evacuate.

Avondale Mill Employees

While unable to talk to personnel at Avondale Mills, the literature search conducted for this project revealed that workers banned together to evacuate the facility and flee the area.

Days Sheltered

Out of the residents evacuated, 5,400 were sheltered for 5 days and 200 were sheltered for 9 days. Industry and retail businesses were shutdown for 9 days.

Evacuation and Well-Being Checks

After the order was received to evacuate within 1 mile of the incident site, 100 two-person teams went into the evacuation zone to conduct evacuation and well-being checks. Approximately 100 to 200 people refused to leave their homes. The checks were completed by 18:30 because the sheriff wanted the people out before dark.

Expansion of Evacuation Zone

Approximately 5,400 residents were evacuated within a 1-mile radius of the incident area. There was a discussion about extending the zone to 3 to 5 miles due to the concern with secondary release from two additional derailed cars. The Coast Guard Strike Team convinced local officials that they were comfortable with recovery activities and the 1-mile zone was sufficient. This decision was made 2 to 3 days into the incident.

Immediate Area

The immediate area (300 yards) was initially evacuated and shelter in place was implemented for a 1-mile radius. At the incident command center, there was a discussion on whether to shelter-in-place or to evacuate.

The initial evacuation zone was determined based on the Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guide and was used to provide a protective isolation distance. Early maps were used to identify the evacuation area, based on previous mapping information for criminal investigations and fire responses.

People without Transportation

Based on the literature review, residents without transportation were not necessarily evacuated. In the San Francisco Chronicle article “Deadly Chlorine Gas Gone—But Fear Hangs Over Hard-Hit Town Some Residents Warily Return Home After Train Wreck” reported: “Rhonda Smith described gazing out at emergency workers whizzing back and forth in safety suits, and waking her children to tell them she loved them. She had no car at her house and was waiting for somebody to stop by to ask if she was safe; no one came until more than 18 hours after the crash. ‘I don't even know how to explain the feeling,’ she said.”

Roles and Responsibilities

Aiken County Emergency Services was responsible for the operation of the emergency operations center and the evacuations, while the GVW Fire Department was responsible for management of the chlorine leak and the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office was responsible for traffic control and law enforcement. Roadblocks were quickly established to limit access to the evacuation zone.

Interview Impression

The impression received from all of the interviews was the general public was on its own when evacuating. Apparently, ambulances and school buses were sent out to assist in the evacuation, but no interviewee knew if and how they were used. In the Sheriff’s Fact Sheet of January 6, 2005, for 19:00, it states, “those without vehicles were transported by school buses to area shelters.” 

The police went door to door to communicate the need to leave the area, but residents were not directed to any particular shelter, only of the need to leave immediately.

February 6, 2006
Publication #FHWA-HOP-08-014