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Graniteville man's death blamed on chlorine train wreck

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jacob Jordan on April 20.)

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. -- A 51-year-old man who inhaled chlorine almost four months ago during one of the nation's deadliest chemical spills has died, according to his family and their lawyer.

Leonard Mathis was driving home from a convenience store in the pre-dawn hours Jan. 6 when he ran into a cloud of chlorine gas. That cloud began to form over Graniteville after a Norfolk Southern train collided into a parked train, rupturing a railroad tanker carrying the toxic chemical.

Mathis was taken to the emergency room and stayed in intensive care for another week, his sister Bonnie Mathis told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He died Tuesday morning, she said.

"As far as we knew, he was pretty healthy up until the train wreck," Mathis' niece Stacey Mathis said.

Mathis was a brick mason who was born and raised in Graniteville. His death, if attributed by authorities to chlorine inhalation, would increase the number of fatalities from the crash to 10. Some 250 also were injured, and more than 20 lawsuits, ranging from personal injury to wrongful death, have been filed since.

"We're informed to believe that the upper respiratory problems are directly related to the chlorine spill. His health had simply continued to decline. He had been on a ventilator since the spill," attorney Reginald Simmons told the AP. "He certainly had no upper respiratory problems prior to the spill. In fact, he worked diligently up until that time of being caught in the plume. He had not returned to work since."

Doctors found he was diabetic and had high blood pressure when he was initially taken to the hospital, but also needed oxygen with him at all times because his lungs were so severely burned, his family said.

"He really couldn't take three steps before he went out of breath," Bonnie Mathis said. "He was my friend and my hero."

Leonard lived behind his sister and niece's Graniteville home and used to beat on the door each morning about 5:30 a.m. - acting as their alarm clock.

"He would come here and wake the whole house up," said 28-year-old Stacey Mathis, fighting back tears. "It felt so funny" not hearing his loud voice Wednesday morning. "I ain't got no bad memories of my uncle," she said.

Mathis had been in the hospital but was expected home this week.

"It's clear from the previous literature that people who get substantial exposures to chlorine have a possibility of long-term health effects," said Dr. Jerry Gibson of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Those effects can be in the lungs, eyes and on the skin, he said.

But there's also not a lot known about the effects of chlorine inhalation.

"There is particularly a lot that isn't quantified," he said.

Simmons said an autopsy was to be conducted soon.

"The autopsy is going to give us more information," Simmons said.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

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