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Pastor’s family escapes harm 200 yards from S.C. train crash

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–Pastors are accustomed to getting phone calls in the middle of the night. But when Steve Hendricks, pastor of Graniteville First Baptist Church (S.C.), answered a call at 3 a.m. on Jan. 6, he was not prepared for what he heard.

His secretary, Kathy Friday, was on the line, frantically urging him to get his family out of the area as quickly as possible. She had been monitoring emergency services radio traffic since 2:20 a.m., when her husband Grady, a firefighter, had responded to the scene of a train derailment.

She knew that firefighters were reporting noxious fumes spreading through the village of Graniteville. She also knew that her pastor’s 19-month-old son, Louis, suffered from mild asthma. What she may not have known was that the two trains collided less than 200 yards from the church parsonage, releasing a deadly cloud of chlorine gas.

Hendricks and his wife sprang into action. “There was an odor of bleach in the air,” he said. “I made my wife and kids stay in the house until we were ready to go. As I was getting in the car I began to feel nauseated, but as soon as we got out of the area and I took a few breaths of fresh air, that passed.

“We literally escaped just in front of the horror of this thing because my secretary called,” he said.

Some residents of Graniteville did not escape. At deadline on Jan. 7, the Associated Press was reporting that at least eight people had died and more than 240 had been treated for respiratory ailments. At least 45 were admitted to hospitals.

Civil authorities set up decontamination tents and evacuation shelters in nearby Aiken, S.C. The Aiken Baptist Association dispatched a childcare unit to the scene, according to Glynn Paschall, disaster relief coordinator for the association since 1990. Volunteers from Sweetwater Baptist Church in North Augusta were staffing the unit, which was operating in the gymnasium of the student center at the University of South Carolina-Aiken.

In Aiken, pastors from Graniteville churches of every denomination were “running back and forth between the shelters,” checking on church members, Hendricks said. He said that no one from his church was among those killed or seriously injured.

“Ninety percent of our members were evacuated from their homes,” he said. “It was just miraculous that we didn’t have anybody hurt or killed in the initial moments. We’re counting ourselves very blessed.”

Hendricks said ministers from his town are talking with each other as they try to decide what to do about church services this Sunday. “The recovery and cleanup effort will take at least through Sunday and maybe even longer,” he said.
Butch Blume is a writer with the Baptist Courier, newsjournal of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

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