Graniteville’s train accident

 

Those first responders to Graniteville’s train accident realize tonight they are not alone in their experience. News 12 was with Fire Chief Phil Napier in Graniteville as he watched our special report from Youngstown, Florida, the site of a similar accident 27 years ago.

The night of the Graniteville crash, local volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene to help before they knew what they were getting into. Paramedics in Youngstown did the same thing and are suffering for it now.

The scene from northwest Florida in 1978 was nearly identical to the one fire chief Phil Napier responded to in the dead of night just four weeks ago.

“We were dispatched to a possible train that hit a building in Graniteville, we didn’t know we were going into a chemical,” said Chief Napier.

Driving toward the fire station from their homes, firefighters suddenly found themselves in the middle of the deadly cloud of chlorine.

“One of my men started screaming on the radio I can’t breathe, I need help,” Napier said.

The paramedics in Florida remember that same feeling.

“When you first take a breath in, your lungs burn, you feel the burning in your lungs,” said Sherman Retherford, Bay County paramedic.

Despite the danger, Chief Napier says his volunteers did what they had to do.

“My men initiated the evacuation. My men are the ones who went in and risked their lives,” Napier said.

All of the first responders got out with their lives, but now they see problems they could face down the road.

Retherford has some advice for Graniteville residents.

“Be prepared for more lung-type problems, like colds and bronchitis. I never had a chest cold until after that,” Retherford said.

And that’s the very thing that concerns Chief Napier, what will happen to his men?

“When we see what happens 27 years ago, and we’ve just lived through it a few weeks ago, most definitely it throws up a red flag,” Napier said.

The first responders in Youngstown, and Graniteville, are just grateful to be alive.

“It would be almost unbearable, had we lost some of our own,” Napier said.

Several of the volunteer firefighters went to the hospital the day of the Graniteville wreck, one stayed there for nearly a week. They were sent home with breathing treatments.

And Chief Napier says after seeing what the guys in Florida went through, he’s going to tell all his men to keep up their treatment with their doctors.

Chief Napier says they did everything they could. His department followed the plan they had in place, and they continue to have one, because as we’ve seen this can happen anywhere.

 

 

 

Graniteville Reacts to Similar Train Accident

 

Those first responders to Graniteville’s train accident realize tonight they are not alone in their experience. News 12 was with Fire Chief Phil Napier in Graniteville as he watched our special report from Youngstown, Florida, the site of a similar accident 27 years ago.

 

February 3, 2005
A train accident early in the morning spilled deadly chlorine gas into the air. We’re not talking about Graniteville, here, but a train wreck years ago in Florida.

News 12 went to Youngstown in northwest Florida, site of another tragic spill in February 1978.

Youngstown was the site of the deadliest train wreck and chemical spill in U.S. history. That is, until the deadly crash in Graniteville last month. Our local tragedy now has new meaning for people in Youngstown, 27 years after the crash sent the tiny Florida town into chaos.

Beaches are golden in Bay County, Florida. A glimpse of the easy-going lifestyle that runs from the sea to the quaint settlement of Youngstown, there’s not much more here than an old church and a tourist stop along with throngs of spring-breakers.

Youngstown is also home to one of the worst disasters in U.S. railroad history.

“We had no clue we were going into something of that magnitude,” said Sherman Rutherford, paramedic, Bay County.

“One of the nurses from the ER called around two o’clock in the morning, said we had a train derailment in Youngstown, so you immediately get up and go,” said Johnny Harris, Bay County Emergency Medical Services.

The date was February 26, 1978. A Saint Andrews Railroad train derails, spewing a lethal cloud of chlorine gas into the air.

Crews rush to the scene, but it’s too late for some. Eight died, hundreds injured, and thousands evacuated.

The train was actually coming south. Johnny Harris works for Bay County’s ambulance service. He was one of the first people to see the mangled wreckage.

“It was derailed back there and with the fog it was drifting to the west and came across the highway,” Harris said.

Harris says it’s something he’ll never forget. But all these years later, some in Bay County actually did. That is until…

“It brought back a lot of memories, a lot of memories,” said Rutherford. “I thought Lord, I know what them boys feel like. It’s a crazy feeling especially when you can’t breathe.”

“All of a sudden I’m thinking this is exactly what happened here,” said Joe Moore, anchor, WJHG-TV.

Joe Moore covered the crash for a Panama City TV station back in 1978.

“Even the video, the aerial video showing the way the tank cars scattered and the box cars went different ways, it looked like the same thing,” Moore said.

“My first thought was, oh lord, now they get to have a go at it. I did not envy anyone,” said Alan Ritchie, Bay County paramedic.

No envy for many reasons. Alan Ritchie remembers gasping for air in ’78.

“They were stacked four or five high,” Ritchie said.

He shared his story along with three colleagues, who all joined Bay County’s rescue squad a year or two before the crash, and they still work there today.

They were among the first emergency responders in February 1978. And they had no idea that mixed in with that early morning fog was a deadly chlorine gas.

“On the way to the hospital you kinda think are they joking with me? And when you walk into the emergency room you see this mass confusion,” Harris said.

“They suddenly smelled something strange. One of them said ‘you smell Clorox?’ The other one said ‘yeah it’s weird’. And suddenly they were into the cloud of chlorine,” said Randy Vick, Director of Bay County Emergency Medical Services.

“When tragedy befalls someone else, we’re kinda used to that in our line of work. But when it reached out and touches you or yours it gets you thinking, more than you want sometimes,” Ritchie said.

“When you first take a breath in, your lungs burn, you feel it burning. It was a very scary feeling. You wanted to get out of there as soon as you could,” Rutherford said.

“You couldn’t see the chlorine cloud through the fog. And all of a sudden what you’ve been doing all your life, breathing, you can’t and if you try to it hurts too much,” Ritchie said.

Their experiences can teach us a lot about what we can expect over the next several years in Graniteville.

 The train crashes and chemical spills in Youngstown and Graniteville are eerily similar. It wasn’t the impact that killed, in both cases everyone died because of a lethal chlorine gas that seeped from the wreckage. So what lies ahead for the Graniteville survivors? If Youngstown is any indication, there could be decades of suffering down the road.

On the shores of the Gulf of Mexico is a so-called band of Bay County rescuers. Randy, Sherman, Johnny and Alan all joined the ambulance squad in 1976 or 1977.

“We’re four of the original employees of the hospital,” said Randy Vick, Director of Bay County Emergency Medical Services.

Fresh on the job, then hit with one of the worst train accidents in U.S. history.

In the early morning hours of February 26, 1978, a train derails, crushing tanker cars together like an accordion. One tanker ruptures and spills chlorine gas. Eight die, hundreds are injured, including four of Bay County’s finest.

“When we got there my partner and myself stepped out and it was like where did the oxygen go?” said Sherman Retherford, Bay County paramedic.

“We didn’t have any training on any chemicals really. We didn’t know what those trains carried. And certainly wasn’t aware of what would occur if we go into the chlorine. We learned really quick,” Vick said.

They work through the day, evacuating thousands and recovering the dead.

The video is a bit faded, but memories are still very vivid, even 27 years later. Emergency crews, responding to the chaos, say the train cars were piled as high as the trees. And many of those first responders are still having problems breathing.

“Each one of us has come with bronchitis symptoms and sinus problem that we didn’t have prior to that,” Vick said. “We still have that, and it’s getting worse. It caused some damage that I don’t think a lot of people realized at the time.”

“I never had any problems before. I have sinus problems now. But you learn to live with that, you know that life goes on,” said Johnny Harris, Bay County Emergency Medical Service.

And it goes on with other health problems, too. Studies have shown their lung capacity has decreased year-by-year. And they warn the same symptoms might be coming soon to survivors in Graniteville.

Retherford has some advice for Graniteville residents.

“Be prepared for more lung-type problems, like colds and bronchitis. I never had a chest cold until after that,” Retherford said.

Several members of Bay County’s sheriff’s office were also injured.

“When you start dealing with things you can’t see and you don’t know where they’re coming from and you start seeing people having reactions to that where they’re passing out or actually dying, that’s pretty scary stuff,” said Captain J.D. Nolan, Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

“Every time you drive by you think about it, you just remember that’s where it was. Something you’ll never forget,” Johnny Harris said.

27 years later the crash site is cleared out, and still off limits. The stain of the crash still lingers. Locals say much of the wreckage was not hauled away, but buried near the track, which is still very active today. But every time a train goes by, everyone who was around back in ’78 still wonders what’s rolling through town.

“We grew up real quick. We learned that there’s a lot of dangerous things out there,” Vick said.

“You’re always hearing about something happening somewhere and it always happens to the other guy. Sometimes you’re the other guy,” said Alan Ritchie, paramedic.

Stung by tragedy, so close to death, now living day-to-day with a constant reminder of the wreck that ripped through town.

“That’s just something that you learn to live with. Luckily we’re all still here,” Ritchie said.

Now the biggest difference is that in Graniteville the crash happened in the heart of downtown. No one really lived around the crash site in Youngstown and all the fatalities there were people traveling along the nearby highway and teenagers found near the crash site.

And fortunately none of that wreckage in Graniteville was buried; it was all hauled away.

Who is paying for medical bills in Florida? Well, they’re picking up the tab. None of the emergency responders News 12 spoke with filed any lawsuits seeking compensation.

The NTSB ruled that someone tampered with the track in Youngstown and that caused the derailment. They turned the case over to the FBI, but even 27 years later, no one was ever charged.