GRANITEVILLE, S.C. -- A freight train carrying chlorine gas struck a parked train early yesterday, killing at least eight people and injuring at least 200 others, most of whom were sickened by the toxic cloud that persisted over this small textile town at nightfall.
Authorities ordered all 5,400 people within a mile of the crash to evacuate in the afternoon because chlorine was continuing to leak and the gas was settling near the ground as temperatures dropped.
State Senator Tommy Moore said officials at Avondale Mill, the textile plant where the crash happened, told him eight people were found dead following the 2:30 a.m. accident, including five inside the mill. Eight people were in critical condition.
Sixteen cars derailed in the crash.
Moore said he was told all the deaths were caused by inhaling chlorine fumes, except for the engineer of the moving train, who died in the crash.
Sheriff's Lieutenant Michael Frank said one person was found dead in a home and another was found in a vehicle.
Most of the injured were treated for respiratory ailments and released, but at least 45 people were admitted to hospitals, authorities said.
Governor Mark Sanford declared a state of emergency after touring the area from the air.
Residents were jarred awake yesterday by the sound of metal dragging and a house-shaking boom. A chemical fog lay over the crash site when Douglas Brown drove there after hearing the wreck from his home two streets away.
"You could smell it real good. It made your tongue numb, your throat get sore, and your eyes get dry," said Brown, 44, who was among those treated.
Authorities remained unsure when the gas leak might be sealed. They set up shelters for evacuees and persuaded all but about a dozen people to evacuate.
The potentially fatal gas can damage the respiratory and central nervous systems and the throat, nose, and eyes. Those who were exposed were told to report to decontamination units at two schools.
Three of the 42 cars on the moving train were carrying chlorine, said
Textile plants and schools in the area were closed, and a 6 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew was imposed on Graniteville, about 15 miles northeast of Augusta, Ga.
Two other hazardous materials, cresol and sodium hydroxide, were being carried on the train in liquid form but were a less immediate concern because they are corrosive only in direct contact, said Thom Berry, spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration sent investigators to the accident site.