Invisible Death: The 2005 Graniteville Train Collision

Background

The location of Graniteville in the southeast of the USA.

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 site of the accident seen from above today. The gate used to be at the upper edge of the image and the School used to be the Office Building.

The trains involved

NS #4622, the locomotive pulling P22, photographed at an unknown point before the accident.

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).

NS #6653, the locomotive leading NS 192, photographed with a similar train in September 2001.

The accident

The points on the main line as shown in the report, the indicator shows white as the points are set for the main line.

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.

Aftermath

A graphic from the report, showing the final location of all the locomotives and cars affected by the collision.

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.

The ruptured car during recovery of the remaining cargo, note that it had been rotated to move the puncture to the top.

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.

NS 192’s leading locomotive (left) and P22’s locomotive (right) sitting at the site after the accident.

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 wreckage during recovery, you can see the spilled fuel flowing away from the derailed locomotives.

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.

NS 192’s leading locomotive, #6653, during repairs in 2009 before being renumbered.

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.

The industry track being removed in 2019 (Google StreetView)
The memorial for the accident, telling what happened (left) and listing the names of the immediate victims (right).

Trivia

_______________________________________________________________

Join the discussion about this post on Reddit!

The index of all my posts on Reddit.

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.