By  on January 10, 2005

NEW YORK — An Avondale Mills Inc. official said Sunday the company doesn’t expect to reopen its Graniteville, S.C. facilities until Wednesday at the earliest.

The plant has been closed since a Thursday train crash released a cloud of poisonous chlorine gas, killing nine people including six Avondale staffers.

Steven Felker Jr., the company’s manager of corporate development, said the firm is still waiting for authorities to continue clearing away the chemicals and damaged rail cars.

“The authorities are making sure the remaining cars of chlorine don’t rupture,” he said in a phone interview. “We will reopen, it’s just a matter of completing the cleanup.”

Avondale staffers haven’t been able to get into the plant since around 2:40 a.m. Thursday, when a 42-car northbound Norfolk Southern train headed to Columbia, S.C., hit another train parked on a side track, according to a railroad spokeswoman. This caused 16 cars on the northbound train to derail and at least one released its cargo of chlorine gas. In addition to the dead, more than 200 people were sickened.

About 400 people were working at the Avondale facility at the time, according to Felker. He added that “a large number” of the employees on duty at the time were hospitalized for exposure to the gas.

“Yesterday was a very dark day for the Avondale family,” he said Friday. “It’s just a tragedy.”

Authorities evacuated more than 5,000 people living within a mile radius of the accident, and the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration dispatched teams to investigate.

The mill complex includes seven buildings where 2,500 workers on three shifts produce denim, piece-dyed and undyed fabrics. The wreck took place on a section of track adjacent to the Avondale plant. Neither train was delivering merchandise to the mill.

According to an FRA spokesman, this was the second fatal train accident near the plant in recent months. In November, five Avondale employees died when the car they were in was hit by a train while crossing the tracks. The spokesman said it was determined that the car passed through flashing warning lights.

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