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.