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Train Derails in Baltimore

Accident: Tanker cars with hazardous chemicals are upset in a downtown tunnel. Smoke forces closure of key roads into the city.

July 19, 2001|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A freight train laden with hazardous chemicals derailed Wednesday in a tunnel beneath a section of downtown Baltimore, spreading dense smoke, severing water mains and forcing safety officials to shut down an Orioles baseball game and sections of the city's highways and harbor.

City fire and police officials said late Wednesday night that the first crews of firefighters had only begun to penetrate the tunnel after six hours of battling thick smoke and intense heat near the city's old Mount Royal train station.

Two firefighters were overcome by the smoke and were hospitalized, officials said. More than 30 units and 200 firefighters--many of them clad in protective masks and fire-retardant suits--had descended on the scene.

"Word is it's a real mess in there," said a city fire dispatcher who declined to give his name. "Our people are just getting in there now, and they say it's still in bad shape."

Pressurized water from the broken mains sent geysers of water and rubble spurting from manhole covers. At Camden Yards, the second game of the Orioles' doubleheader against the Texas Rangers was postponed, forcing players and fans to stream out of the stadium.

For several hours at the height of the afternoon commuter rush, a team of 200 state highway workers fanned out along main roads leading into the city and turned back motorists, said Laura Rakowski, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said the smoke pouring from the tunnel was being monitored as a possible hazard. "So far all the air quality has been OK. There's some really hazardous stuff in there."

Exits to the city's downtown from all interstates were closed shortly after the 3 p.m. derailment. Hours later, barricades and roadblocks were erected along major secondary roads. By 10 p.m., the dispatcher said, all roadways but a section of Interstate 395 were accessible again.

"If we erred on the side of caution, everybody will have to hold me accountable for the traffic disruption," O'Malley said.

A dispatcher said late Wednesday that at least four cars of the 60-car freight train had derailed. Ron Gould, a spokesman for CSX Corp., which owns the train, said eight tanker cars in the long freight caravan were carrying hydrochloric acid--a corrosive chemical that does not burn but can vent dangerous vapor when heated.

"We don't know what's on fire," Gould said.

The cause of the derailment was not immediately known, he said.

Gould added that the train was midway through the 1.7-mile tunnel when a sensor in the first of three locomotives detected an unidentified problem. The two-person crew stopped the train in the tunnel and walked back to check the other cars. Turned back by smoke, they uncoupled the locomotives and rode out of the tunnel.

City firefighters are frequently called to the freight tunnel by reports of smoke, the fire dispatcher said. "We get calls all the time, and most of them turn out to be nothing. This one was the real thing."

Officials said the Howard Street corridor, a downtrodden commercial area that runs from near the train station to Camden Yards, was closed off by the derailment. Part of Lombard Street, a thoroughfare running near the city's Inner Harbor area, caved in because of water damage, officials said.

Boats heading into the harbor, not far from Camden Yards, were turned away by Coast Guard vessels for several hours.

The underground tunnel runs near the Mount Royal station, once a working depot but now a part of the Maryland Institute of Art. The tunnel is several blocks from Amtrak commuter rail lines. But despite the smoke and a blackout to at least 1,200 electricity users, the fire was not delaying any commuter rail runs, an official said.

On May 15, a CSX train with hazardous cargo rolled unoccupied 70 miles through Ohio after an engineer mistakenly hit the throttle instead of the brake, investigators said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Underground Spill

A freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in a tunnel beneath Baltimore. * Tunnel Length: 1.7 miles

* Opened: May 1, 1895

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