EDITORS NOTE: The following article is based on a presentation delivered by Chief Dan Turno at the 20th annual Industrial Fire World Conference & Exposition in March 2005.
In Graniteville, S.C., the industrial part of town is known as "The Valley." In the foggy early hours of Jan. 6, 2005, an 11-car Norfolk Southern freight train making deliveries to local industries ran into problems that forced the crew to temporarily pull onto a siding near a textile plant, Avondale Mills.
Unfortunately, said Don Turno, chief of the Aiken County Hazmat Team, some important safety procedures were not followed.
"They forgot to verify that the switch had been put back into the main line configuration," Turno said.
At 2:40 a.m. a second Norfolk Southern freight traveling north from Augusta, GA, to Columbia, S.C., came through Graniteville. Despite the light to moderate fog the engineer saw the switch in the wrong position and attempted to stop. It was too late. Only 17 seconds later the 42-car second train, traveling at 41 mph, diverted onto the siding and hit the locomotive of the parked freight train head on.
As a result, approximately 80 tons of chlorine was released in the second largest accidental chlorine release in U.S. history. More than 5,400 local residents were evacuated for five days to two weeks.
Turno and his team would be involved in nearly 10 days of around-the-clock response operations.
"We made the initial decision to evacuate one mile because of the potential of the three chlorine cars," Turno said. "One had released but two were still full. After some discussions at the unified command level we talked about a three-to-five-mile evacuation. We were at the point where the governor had already declared a state of emergency."
Of the 15 rail cars that derailed in the collision, five contained hazardous material. One derailed car contained sodium hydroxide. Another contained a residue of an elevated temperature liquid known as NOS (rosin). Worst of all, the other three derailed cars contained chlorine. One of those cars had received an 8- to 10-inch gash through which the escaping chlorine was released.
Of the nine immediate fatalities, the engineer of the moving train was the only crew member killed. He died from the chlorine, not the collision, Turno said.
"For being hit at 41 mph, the cab was in pretty good shape," Turno said. "None of the windows are busted. All of the train members did survive the initial impact. It was getting out through the chlorine cloud that got them. One passed away and the other two survived."
All but one of the remaining deaths were residents of Graniteville or employees at Avondale Mills. A tenth fatality blamed on chlorine exposure was reported in April. As for the injured, of the 552 casualties treated 69 were admitted to hospitals.
Some patients were determined to put as much distance between themselves and Graniteville as possible.
"Some went 65 miles away to Columbia," Turno said. "Once we found out about the first one we notified all the hospitals to ask patients where they came from."
Aiken County covers 1,073 square miles and is the state's second largest county. Aiken, the county seat of Aiken County, is part of the Augusta, GA., metroplex.
Graniteville, an unincorporated community, is five miles west of Aiken and is home to the county's industrial park. Known as Sage Mill, the park includes the eight divisions of Avondale Mills, Inc., as well as a tire plant and a roller bearing manufacturer.
County operated emergency responders include the sheriff's office and, under the heading of Aiken County Emergency Services, EMS, emergency management and hazmat. The hazmat team includes 40 members both paid and volunteer, working out of one station.
Twenty-three fire departments operate in Aiken County, three of which are career and the rest volunteer. The GVW (Graniteville, Vaucluse and Warrenville) Fire Department consists of 40 members and three stations serving about 12,000 residents. There is also a County fire team, under Emergency Services that cover this area.
Of the nine fatalities, six were employees found in three different locations at nearby Avondale Mills.
"Avondale Mills sits low in a natural valley," Turno said. "The plants have large ventilation system to cool those machines. Of course, the chlorine cloud was sucked in."
Only one fatality was reported in a residence, the closest of which was 150 feet away from the collision.
"One of the biggest challenges we had was the residents living in the area," Turno said. "At 3 a.m. they were all at home. On the other hand, there were three schools in the vicinity which fortunately were not in session."
Another victim was a trucker waiting for his truck to be loaded.
"He was a young man from Quebec, Canada, who was there to pick up a delivery of blue jeans," Turno said. "He went to sleep that night in the cab of his 18-wheeler and never woke up again."
The first person to report the collision to 911 stayed calm and gave the dispatchers a great deal of information, Turno said. However, some of the most important information in that initial call to 911 did not get passed on to emergency responders initially. Although GVW V.F.D. Chief Phil Napier advised responders not to enter the immediate area, some GVW V.F.D. personnel were overcome just trying to get to the station.
"The Graniteville fire station was about 150 yards south of where the incident occurred," Turno said. "When they were dispatched, some of their responders headed to the station driving through the plume. The chlorine was so concentrated that it choked out their vehicles. A couple of responders had to go to the hospital."
Those responders reported a green cloud which helped other hazmat officials quickly isolate the problem and learn which product was involved, Turno said. The county hazmat team, notified at 2:45 a.m., was on the scene 15 minutes later.
"We contacted the NOAH weather station in Columbia, S.C. and asked them to activate their NOAH radios, something that has been available to us since September 11," Turno said. "About every hour I was in contact with them and they were reissuing their alert based on our report from the command post."
One of the first responders on scene requested that dispatchers immediately activate the area's reverse 911 system to notify residents at home. Although the system was put in operation within 10 minutes of the incident, there were problems spreading word of the emergency, Turno said.
"Our local emergency planning commission and the fire fighters association for the county had decided to put the reverse 911 into effect," Turno said. "We raised the money, bought the system for the county and put it in place. This was the first time it had been used."
Unfortunately, much of the original data bank was outdated because the initial purchase was made with the understanding that the county would pick up the reoccurring costs, he said. These costs had not been budgeted.
"We had a lot of people who were either not notified or who had moved," Turno said. "These days, since you can take your phones with you, they lived well outside the boundary."
As in a great many such events, the initial hours were chaos, Turno said. Some emergency responders observed hot zone protocol while others did not.
"While law enforcement and the hazmat personnel were using the main road, EMS was going down the back road," Turno said. "Law enforcement and hazmat never knew that EMS was making entries into the hot zone."
Hot zone protocol proved difficult to observe in other aspects as well.
"When the departments responded they brought their own gear," Turno said. "They would go into the hot zone with their own gear and then leave with it. One of the things that we have learned about since is the effect of chlorine on SCBAs."
The wiser move would have been to let the initial entry team and one or two other departments use their gear in the hot zone, then reuse it as other personnel rotated in and out of the zone, Turno said.
"We did decontaminate everything," Turno said. "However, when you asked firefighters if they took a specific piece of equipment into the hot zone no one could remember."
First official entry into the hot zone was made at 4:30 a.m. for purposes of reconnaissance and to set up remote monitors.
"When we sent in our recon team the fog and the light color green of the chlorine made it hard to see," Turno said. "But the cresol rosin that is shipped at an elevated temperature of more than 115 degrees C gave off a beautiful orange cloud. That is what the initial response team was concentrating on as they were taking pictures and giving us information. They almost missed the chlorine. However, we got a lot of good information from residents in the area as they dialed 911 telling us they could smell bleach."
Although the fog restricted vision, the weather also had its benefits.
"Even though it was in January it was warm," Turno said. "We had light to moderate fog that did help us keep the chlorine low. We had a prevailing wind from the southwest, so we knew the wind direction to expect for the day. It was 59 degrees F with a relative humidity of 95 degrees which helped us to some extent."
Usually, when a freight train is being put together, the crew will put several rail cars with non hazardous cargo between the engine and the first rail cars loaded with hazardous materials. This was the case at Graniteville but not as many non-hazardous cars as usual. It seemed like the five rail cars with hazardous material were directly behind the locomotive, Turno said.
"One of the reports we were getting was that there were rail cars cut in half," he said. "We thought we really had a mess. It turned out that the gondola cars had tops on them that carry spooled steel. We found some of those spools six feet in the ground."
Photos and video that the entry team brought back to the command post made it clear that more outside help would be needed, Turno said.
"We knew that it was beyond our capabilities, not because of lack of training but because to get at the leaking cars we were going to need cranes," Turno said. "We decided to set up a hot zone and start evacuating everyone."
The one-mile radius for evacuation might have been reduced if responders had taken the topography of the area into consideration, but that decision was made by the unified command team Turno said.
"When you look at a map you think that it is flat," Turno said. "This is actually a natural valley and we may have used the terrain to our advantage. We may have closed up some of our evacuation radius because the chlorine was held in the valley by the natural topography of the land."
Operating under a unified command structure, 111 agencies participated in the Graniteville response. Enforcing the evacuation fell to the South Carolina Highway Patrol, South Carolina Transport Police County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement from around the State. The U.S. Coast Guard assigned a Gulf Coast strike team to the emergency.
Keeping out emergency responders acting outside the unified command system proved more difficult, Turno said.
"If you had a credential that said you were a firefighter you usually were let in," Turno said. "This happened largely because the people taking care of the outside perimeter were not from our area. They were from upstate or the coast. All they saw were badges saying someone was law enforcement, firefighter or EMS and they let then in. We are now considering a statewide credentialing system."
Another important aspect of incident command is the activation of the emergency operations center. In Aiken County, the center consists of two key people, Turno said.
"One is the overall fire chief for all 23 departments," he said. "The departments agree to give over control to him and he can move equipment and men anywhere in the county by radio, based on what is needed. The person next to him represents law enforcement."
These two people are replaced every eight to 10 hours to guard against exhaustion, Turno said. Assisting them is a county administrator authorized to sign checks. Also in support is a chief IT (Information Technology) person and an assistant.
"The command post area actually consisted of four vehicles," Turno said. "The sheriff had one, the fire department had one, haz mat had one and the state agency that runs our environmental programs had one. The emissions from those four vehicles gave me and a few others headaches. We forgot about spreading them out or watching the emissions from those vehicles."
Radio communications became critical. In the first six hours there were 500 EMS transmissions, 370 fire transmissions and 450 sheriff's transmissions. More than 200 911 calls were logged in the first 3? hours.
"We brought in a mobile command post and basically did all the transmissions from there," Turno said. "We had four dispatchers one for the sheriff, one for fire, one for EMS and one is a supervisor who can take over from another console."
Normally, the sheriff, EMS and fire departments each have different radios that are not interoperable except through dispatch. A large state owned repeater was brought in and responders were furnished with 800 radios that could "talk" to each other.
Officials set up a "211" line as an information only extension of "911." Almost 3,000 "211" calls would be logged during the course of the emergency.
"Those were the calls asking everything from 'What can I do about Fluffy the cat?' to 'How can I get my medicine?,'" Turno said.
Setting up the unified command structure had its own problems in the opening hours of the emergency, Turno said.
"We probably had too many people at the command briefings to start with," he said. "We narrowed that down to a few select people who then, in turn, conducted briefings with other people. By Friday things calmed down to where everything was pretty much under control and we had our action plan truly in place."
A local university campus across the street from the hospital was used as a location for mass decontamination. Ambulance crews who had recently completed hazmat training were dressed in Level B suits and dispatched to retrieve people from either residences or local mills. Six ambulance companies, both private and volunteer, would be pressed into service.
In South Carolina, COBRA (chemical, ordinance, biological and radiation agents) Response Teams are a key component of the Critical Incident Response System organized by the state emergency management division. Instead of a typical three-quarter ton SUV to transport the local COBRA team, the emergency manager bought a bus that pulls an equipment trailer. That bus was also used to transport patients, Turno said.
The hazmat team used a car dealership as its forward command post. Over the next four days the team would make 300 entries into the hot zone.
"We did everything from evacuate people to recon, assist the Coast Guard and EPA with monitoring and even feeding animals," Turno said. "We used more than 500 pounds of dog and cat food in the first few days."
Making use of every possible resource, the hazmat team contacted a nearby U.S. Department of Energy facility, Savannah River Natural Laboratory and asked them to work up a plume model based on the information available.
"This is a nuclear facility where they used to make a lot of the plutonium and tritium for our nuclear arsenal," Turno said. "We have software programs like Cameo and Aloha that we use for plume models, but their software is much more sophisticated."
According to Savannah River, the plume would extend north as far as Interstate 20 five miles north. The accuracy of the model was confirmed when dispatchers started receiving calls reporting the odor of chlorine in that area, Turno said.
"We went back and asked them to model the plume as if the entire contents were released at one time," Turno said. "We took that model and went back to the incident. We took pictures. We looked at all the foliage and where the victims were. It matched 100 percent. Now we ask for models in two different ways - one based on the largest container of the incident if we have a sudden release and the other is dependent on a leak rate in a given amount or a given set of time."
Every day maps used at the emergency operations center were updated as to evacuation routes based on the plume models.
"One thing we were glad about was we had the information technologists right there in the same room with us," Turno said. "They ran the computers and printed the maps for us."
For the next two weeks the crossing arms, bells and lights in the hot zone operated continuously. Emergency responders were not allowed to dismantle or even touch this equipment until the National Transportation Safety Board had ruled out the possibility of terrorism. Using a plane usually reserved for the director of the FBI, NTSB and FBI investigators were on scene by 3 p.m. the day of the collision.
"During that whole time we had bells and whistles going off that hampered communication with the teams going into the hot zone," Turno said.
The Graniteville emergency marked the first time that the PEP "pod" system has been used, Turno said. PEP is comprised of highly specialized equipment, as well as off-the-shelf items, stored in 11 pods dispersed nationwide and transportable by land or air within one to 12 hours. Through formal request, the federal government transfers custody of these assets to local officials.
"It was extremely difficult to get the equipment," Turno said. "We put in the request on Thursday and it did not arrive until Monday. Due to this incident and the time it took, the Department of Homeland Security is reexamining the way that they deploy the PEP pods."
One of the biggest lessons this event taught local responders is that a logistics officer is an immediate necessity. Keeping track of equipment while organizing a major emergency response is difficult at best.
"We still can't find 500 sets of warm up suits that were donated by a local industry for all the firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical folks that went in and out of the hot zone. We don't know where they ended up but we know they were delivered."
Logistics soon presented some other interesting problems. With so many entries, the team soon ran out of Level B suits and boots.
"We called up a company in Ohio that made the boots for us," Turno said. "Volunteers came in from a sister plant and worked overtime to make them. Then we had to get local people with privately owned airplanes to donate their planes and fuel to bring the boots in."
However, the number of boots needed dangerously overloaded the planes. The only alternative was to truck the boots to South Carolina. To avoid violating DOT regulations, four drivers were assigned to each truck in order to deliver the cargo in less than 18 hours.
"We could not have them commercially flown to us because of the post 9/11 rules regarding paper work on air cargos," Turno said. "We couldn't get the paper work together in order fast enough to satisfy the FAA and still get the boots soon enough."
Any further problems with emergency shipments were eliminated when Federal Express offered to handle the job, no matter how big the cargo.
One major logistics obstacle was finding housing for more than 100 responders. Every
local hotel room was quickly taken. Feeding those responders was another challenging task.
"We had a lot of people who wanted to feed us on that first Monday, but by Tuesday there wasn't anyone," Turno said. "We were lucky enough to find someone to coordinate this with the volunteers so that breakfast showed up on Monday, lunch on Tuesday, etc. The Red Cross and Salvation Army also came with provisions."
Also on hand was the Charleston (S.C.) Police Department who brought their emergency "chuck wagon" used to serve food during hurricane evacuations.
"They are the ones that ended up feeding us and I can tell you it was some of the best food you could ask for," Turno said. "We had lamb one night, then steak and shrimp. We did not lack for good meals, at least at the command post. We did have to remember to deliver food out to all our barricades. They fed more than 400 meals a day, three times a day, and transported it to all our security points."
Inevitable with any major industrial accident, Graniteville garnered a great deal of media attention during this period. News outlets from across the nation were sending reporters to cover the evacuation and clean-up. To oblige, local officials established a media station to disseminate information.
"Some of the biggest tractor-trailer rigs I've ever seen were there for the media," Turno said. "Some stayed a day and some stayed the entire two weeks."
Residents displaced by the emergency wanted information too. A series of five town meetings were held to discuss what had happened, what was going to happen and anything else citizens wanted to know, Turno said.
"Norfolk Southern brought in Ph.D chemists and anybody else we thought we needed to answer our questions," Turno said.
The collision occurred Thursday morning. By Saturday afternoon firefighters and hazmat responders thought their jobs were winding down. However, one suspected casualty remained missing. On Sunday, that fatality was found. But the railroad asked the responders to stay on the scene, Turno said.
"South Carolina has legislation called the Firefighter Mobility Act," Turno said. "It requires every firefighter in the state to be in the mobility data base. That data base lists your name, where you live, what certificates you hold - firefighter I, II, hazmat technician - and whether you specialize in high angle or confined space rescue. At that time we activated the mobility data base and every 12 hours we rotated our hazmat crews."
Meanwhile, repairs continued on the leaking tank car. Using steel plates, workers fashioned a patch to fit over the gash before pressurizing the car and removing the remaining 10 tons of chlorine.
"They used another chemical that they mixed with the chlorine that was left over, turning it into a weak bleach," Turno said. "By the time they were finished the chlorine was actually turned into something like salt."
Although the wrecked trains have been removed, many signs of the accident remain in Graniteville today. Although most of the homes survived, the chlorine cloud left its mark in other ways.
"One church is still not in use," Turno said. "They are rewiring it. They had a lot of brass in it that was corroded, especially the stained glass that is having to be replaced. The plumbing in the church was well over 100 years old."
The fire station in Graniteville lost four trucks, two rescue vehicles and one support vehicle due to chlorine contamination.
"The insurance company wrote them off as a complete loss," Turno said. "It was the effect of that concentration of chlorine on any exposed metal."
South Carolina Electric and Gas lost many of its power substations throughout the area due to the effect of the chlorine. One of the most heavily effected areas of Avondale Mills was a building that housed data administration for the facility. The chlorine concentration wiped out the computers in use.
Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, there was at least one moment where humor broke through.
"One lady came up to us afterward and said 'I must be in the wrong house. What did you do to our house?'" Turno said. " We asked her what she meant. She said 'Well, our pool out back was filthy and nasty. We haven't used it in years. Now it looks like it has just been installed.'"