27 Years Later, Part 2

By: Erich Spivey
By: Erich Spivey

February 3, 2005
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.

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