Blacks say they were left until last
Sheriff denies that white Graniteville neighborhoods were evacuated first

Staff Writer

GRANITEVILLE — Some residents of the New Hope community claim emergency officials deliberately stranded them for hours in the toxic chlorine plume while quickly evacuating more affluent areas.

Johnnie Alexander, who lives on Gentry Street about three blocks from the train wreck site, said friends who are white and live nearby told him they were evacuated soon after the 2:40 a.m. wreck Jan. 6. Alexander, who is black, and his wife weren’t evacuated until about 3:30 that afternoon.
Residents near the site initially were told to stay in their homes to avoid the chlorine gas.

“Being three blocks away, me and my family should have gotten out earlier,” Alexander said Monday.
About a half-dozen other residents of the New Hope community expressed similar concerns when interviewed Monday by The State. They said their views echoed opinions of other community residents.

Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt, who ordered a one-mile evacuation around the crash site that afternoon, said no officers were told after the wreck to evacuate certain areas and ignore others. He said many people — including some residents in his neighborhood and in New Hope — left on their own; others in town had to be rescued immediately.

“I’m satisfied with the evacuation,” the sheriff said, “and I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

The train wreck killed nine, sent more than 500 to area hospitals and forced the evacuation of nearly 5,500 residents, officials said. An evacuation order was still not completely lifted as of Monday night.

The New Hope community, on the east side of town roughly between Gregg Highway and A.P. Nivens Street, has an estimated population of more than 1,000, residents said.

“We are ignored anyways because we are poor and black,” said Elouise McBurnette, who lives on Railroad Street about a quarter mile from the crash site.
McBurnette, who suffers from asthma and has a 6-month-old child, wonders why she had to wait until about 1:30 that afternoon to be evacuated.
Victor Dunbar, who lives on Church Street, said he heard that mostly white residents of Laurel Drive and Trolley Line Road north of New Hope were evacuated early that morning.

Hunt, who is white and lives on Laurel Drive, strongly denied the claim.

“There’s no one race or one other area that’s more important,” he said, adding his own neighborhood didn’t receive special treatment. “I hate that those folks feel that way, but the fact of the matter is, they got the wrong information.”

Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Volunteer Fire Chief Phil Napier said the situation was chaotic at first because no one knew exactly what had happened.
“The best way to describe it was that it was an ant mound, and you poured poison in the middle of it,” he said Monday.

Napier, who lives on Jasmine Drive west of New Hope and the crash site, said when he regained his senses after driving to the site, he called his wife and told her to head immediately to North Augusta.

Napier said that although he was not involved in the evacuation order, he was “under the impression they were all notified at the same time.”

Hunt said he ordered the mile-radius evacuation late in the afternoon because even though the first chlorine plume had left the area, he was concerned about another serious leak, either from the already-leaking chlorine tanker or from another severely damaged tanker.

The evacuation was done “simultaneously” by several hundred officers from across the state, who were assigned in teams to one of 11 designated areas covering the one-mile radius, he said.

He pointed out that because he knew that some New Hope residents do not own transportation, he sent in school buses to evacuate those who couldn’t get out on their own.

“I’ve been very good to the New Hope community,” he said.

Pamela Hall, who is black, believes that Hunt has been “genuinely concerned about crime” in New Hope. But as adviser at Hall Gaffney Learning Center, a small, private pre-kindergarten through second-grade school on A.P. Givens Street, she said she was frustrated that she couldn’t immediately get county or Norfolk Southern officials to inspect her school to make sure it was safe.

She said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workers finally inspected the school Sunday afternoon, long after other public schools in the area had been inspected. She believes the fact that it is located in New Hope was a factor in the delay.

“They kept giving me the run-around,” she said.

Efforts to reach EPA officials Monday were unsuccessful. Thom Berry, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Monday he didn’t know why Hall’s school wasn’t immediately inspected. But he didn’t believe it was deliberately ignored.

“When it comes to our colleagues at the EPA, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a public school or private school,” he said. “A school is a school.”

Ronald Coleman, senior pastor at Valley Fair Baptist Church nearby, said he hopes government officials will address the concerns of New Hope residents. He said the federal government in the 1970s provided money for new housing only after residents spoke out.

“It seems like the New Hope section of Graniteville is always the last,” he said.

Posted on Tue, Jan. 18, 2005
© 2005 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.