Invisible Death: The 2005 Graniteville Train Collision
Graniteville is a town of 2614 people (as of 2010) in the southeastern USA, located in the federal state of South Carolina 86km/53.5mi southwest of Columbia and 17km/10.5mi northeast of Augusta, Georgia (both measurements in linear distance).
The town is part of the NS’ (Norfolk Southern Railway) network, an Atlanta-based freight train provider. Founded in 1982 the NS operates a total amount of track adding up to 24450km/15193mi with usage rights for several hundred additional Kilometers of track owned by other companies. The tracks stretch through 22 states and the District of Columbia, from Florida in the south to Kansas City in the west and Binghamton in the north. Graniteville itself was founded by the establishment of a cotton mill in 1845, the first part of what would become the Avondale Mills, a number of factories owned from 1996 onward by a company of the same name, at the time the USA’s largest Denim-manufacturer. As the main line passes through Graniteville parallel to Trolley Line Road and Canal Street/Railroad Avenue an industry track for the local factory turns off the main line to the west outside what at the time was the Hickman Mill’s Data Processing Office. Immediately following the points separating it from the main line the industry track crosses Trolley Line Road and goes along Aiken Road for a short distance before crossing Hickman Street, passing through a gate and further splitting up. The site of the accident lies between the points and the industry gate on the other side of Hickman Street.
The trains involved
P22 was a local freight train provided by the NS delivering cars to and picking up cars from various industries along the main line in the area, departing from the freight yard in Aiken (South Carolina), 8.5km/5mi linear distance to the east of Graniteville. P22 was pulled by NS GP59 number 4622. The EMD GP59 is a four-axle diesel locomotive introduced in 1985 mostly for shunting service but also smaller freight trains. Measuring 18.21m/60ft in length the 122 metric ton locomotive can reach up to 105kph/65mph thanks to a 2200KW/3000hp V12 diesel engine. By the time the train reached the industry track at Graniteville it consisted of 12 freight cars. Two cars were delivered on the factory property before the ten-car train was moved towards the main line. By the end of the day prior to the accident the train was shortened to two cars for overnight storage and parked between the points and the factory gate with the locomotive towards the main line. At that point it measured 52m/172ft and was parked with the locomotive 104m/340ft from the points.
NS 192 was a freight train consisting of two locomotives and 42 freight cars scheduled to run from Macon, Georgia, to Columbia, South Carolina. The train contained 25 loaded and 17 empty freight cars carrying various cargo, weighting 3520 metric tons at 338m/2553ft in length. According to the freight documentation 14 cars contained hazardous cargo or residue thereof. Those materials were chlorine (car 6, 7 and 9), sodium hydroxide (car 8 and 31), cresols (car 18) and aniline (car 34 and 35) along with car 16 and 17 containing residue of rosin and four cars containing residue of methanol (car 24–27). Leading the train at the time of the accident was NS SD60 number 6653, a six-axle diesel locomotive made by GM for heavy freight services. Introduced in 1984 the SD60 measures 21.69m/71ft in length at 167 metric tons in weight and can reach 113kph/70mph thanks to a 2800KW/3800hp V16 diesel engine running at just 900rpm. The following locomotive was SD60 #6593, an identical locomotive that had been leading the train earlier but had been moved to position 2 after a defect in the HOTD (head-end telemetry device), a device logging and transferring data between the locomotive and a similar device at the back of the train (EOTD).
On the 5th of January 2005 at 6:55pm P22 has been parked on the industry track at Graniteville, shortened to two cars to fit between the points to the main line and the gate to the property itself. While the engineer (the person driving/controlling the locomotive) went through the shutdown-procedure to store the locomotive for the night the brakeman went to close the gate before returning to the train to retrieve his personal belongings. He later noted that it was 6:59pm when he grabbed his bag off the locomotive, and that the three-man crew (engineer, brakeman, conductor) was in a hurry because they had been pushed to avoid overtime/avoid exceeding hours of service limits. After the conductor had helped the engineer with his bag the three men got into a waiting taxi and departed. Crucially, none of them had ensured that the points were set back to “straight” after having been set to “turn-off” for P22 to enter the industry track. NS operating rule 104 at the time said that the position of the points was the responsibility of the employee setting it, but also that this didn’t mean other crew members shouldn’t ensure that the employee in question fulfills his task of setting and resetting points. In the case of P22 on that day this means the brakeman was the one to reset the points to “straight” after the train had parked, a task to be done before he radioed dispatch that the main line was clear. The points at the industry track were fitted with a large upright indicator (called the target) which showed white if the points are set to main line and red if they’re set for the industry track. However on the day neither of the three men ensured that the points had been reset, and due to the curvature of the industry track the headlights of NS #4622 did not illuminate the indicator. Furthermore, there was no system reporting the position of the switch to dispatch or linking it into the signal-system.
On its way to Aiken Yard the taxi passed at just 6m/21ft distance, but neither the crew nor the taxi driver noted its position. The conductor later said that the crew trusted the brakeman, who seemed sure to have reset the points. The taxi dropped the crew off at Aiken Yard at 7:15pm where the engineer departed for home while the brakeman and conductor proceeded to the yard office to fill out paperwork for the shift. At 7:52pm the conductor asked the brakeman to contact dispatch and clear the main line, which he did at 7:54. He later said he’d never have cleared the track if he wasn’t sure that everything was right.
No trains demanded clearance for the affected section of track until 2am the next day (6th of January 2005), when clearance was issued for NS 192 (full designation 192P005) to move from Augusta, Georgia to Summit, South Carolina. At 2:37am NS 192 approached the points to the industry track at Graniteville, travelling at 77kph/48mph. Around this time the conductor heard the emergency brakes coming on, he later recalls hearing the engineer say “the target is wrong”. At 2:39:00am, approximately 142m/466ft from its final resting place the train’s data-logger showed 75.5kph/47mph. The same moment the train dove into the industry-track, throwing the conductor to the side, an instant later NS 192 struck the parked P22’s locomotive, throwing the conductor to the floor. The locomotives transfer most of the forces through them, derailing both of NS 192’s locomotives along with 16 of its cars, piling up behind the locomotives as their momentum forces them to keep going. One of NS 192’s tank cars, loaded with 90 tons of chlorine, ruptures as other train cars run into it, releasing 60 tons of the toxic gas into the surroundings. At 2:39:20 the data-logger records standstill, the collision stopped 3520 tons of steel in just a few feet.
At 2:40:11am the conductor radios dispatch, saying they went through a misaligned switch, hit a locomotive and need help. The conductor is injured but alive, but he can smell the chemicals the train had loaded. While the dispatch center alerts responders the engineer and conductor manage to leave the locomotive, with the engineer saying they need to move “downwind” as they see a grey-ish white cloud form over the wreckage, but no fire. The ninth car of NS 192 had been punctured, releasing 2/3 of its load in a sudden discharge creating a cloud approximately 1.03km/3400ft by 670m/2200ft. The sudden release cooled down the remaining chlorine caused a phenomenon called auto-refrigeration, cooling the cargo down enough to keep the remaining 30 tons in a liquid state, slowing the release of the gas. The accident also happened on a nearly windless day, meaning the cloud largely settled in the valley along the tracks rather than spreading uncontrollably.
In the minutes after the crash over a dozen calls were placed with emergency services, with some callers reporting a low-lying yellow haze that smelled somewhat like bleach while others suspected a fire. By 2:42am the first responders were arriving at the site, with the fire chief advising further units to hold near the site until they knew what exactly they were dealing with. 4 minutes later the chief told dispatch that they needed hazardous material teams, 2 minutes later he had to withdraw from the site as he couldn’t breathe. A minute later an emergency notification went out to local residents telling them to keep windows closed and to shelter indoors. It took until 3:06 for responders to finally be told what exactly was in the cars, 10 minutes after the first people had been taken to the hospital from the scene. While no one died in the collision itself nine people passed away within a few days after the accident from chlorine gas inhalation, with over 250 people requiring treatment but surviving. Among the dead was the engineer of NS 192, six employees of Avondale Mills, a truck driver who had been sleeping in his truck near the site and a local resident. A tenth victim was claimed when Mister Mathis, a local resident who had been driving through the outer part of the cloud on the day, died from deteriorating health in connection with chlorine poisoning in late April 2005.
While only car 9 ruptured, displaying a gash 34 inches long and 5 inches wide, caused by car 11’s coupler grinding along the side of it and acting like a knife. The other tanker cars were dented and deformed as they derailed, some suffering severe damage, but remained sealed until their cargo could be safely recovered. The locomotives suffered extensive impact-damage to their nose-sections, in the case of NS #6653 the impact torqued the body enough to render one of the doors inoperable without breaking any cab-windows. All in all the NS reported a material damage of 6.9 million USD/5.7 million Euros. This excludes damage pay to evacuated residents/workers, damage to property not belonging to the NS and any sort of medical cost .The local fire departments had to write off 2 fire trucks, a service truck and an ambulance which suffered damage from gas exposure that put them beyond economical repair. This added another 630 thousand USD/520 thousand Euros to the bill.
The blame for the accident was soon placed on P22’s brakeman, who had trusted routine by believing he had reset the switch and didn’t go to make sure before leaving the site. However, as his coworkers also failed to display the mandated caution to ensure that the points were reset he was never criminally charged. Avondale Mills reached a 215 million USD/177.5 million Euro settlement with its insurance and, after taking NS to court regardless, settled with the NS on an undisclosed sum. Regardless, citing inability to recover from the consequences of the accident, Avondale Mills ceased all operations by July 2006, leaving 4000 people in 4 states unemployed. Having survived for 109 years, including making it through the great depression, the train crash literally outside their front door brought the company to their knees. The NS found itself in court with the EPA, having to pay millions for violating the Clean Water Act, pay 32500USD/26800 Euros for failing to immediately notify authorities of the hazardous material spill, replace over 3000 fish in nearby Langley Pond and pay for over 100 thousand USD/82 thousand Euros in vegetation to be planted along Horse Creek, decreasing erosion and improving water quality.
The derailed freight cars had to be scrapped after the accident, with the crash and subsequent chlorine spill damaging them beyond repair. NS 4622 was repaired and renumbered to 4636, being converted into the advanced GP59E with a new electrical system, upgraded engine and cooling and improved brakes. NS 6653 received a new body and was renumbered 6900, when asked by a railway enthusiast at the workshop an NS-employee said they had to renumber it as the engineer had died (even though not on board but during an accident it had) as people would “mess with”/vandalize it if they recognized it otherwise.
The industry track laid abandoned since the closure of Avondale Mills, finally being removed in 2019. A large area of fallow land was left behind at the site, and a memorial was erected nearby. Notably, the memorial wall lists 9 fatalities, missing Mister Mathis.
Folk Singer Doug Burr memorialized the accident in his 2007 song “Graniteville”, which tells a fictionalized account of a local husband attempting to wake up his wife to escape the nearby chemical spill.