The clouds of acrid black smoke that spewed from yesterday's tunnel fire made virtual prisoners of thousands of commuters and Orioles fans who were stuck downtown for hours in gridlocked traffic or in steamy bars and restaurants that had been forced to shut off their air conditioning.
Yesterday's fire, caused by a CSX freight train accident, reached its height during the evening rush hour, as workers started heading home and others were headed into town to catch the second game of the Orioles-Texas Rangers doubleheader.
Block after block of frustrated commuters sat and fumed in bumper-to-bumper traffic, keeping abreast of the situation through cellular phones or the radio.
`There is no escape'
"Man, I have been around every corner. There is no escape," said Michael White, a Fells Point businessman, as his car idled on St. Paul Street just north of Fayette. "All I want to do is get out of here."
The staff at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, at Charles and Conway streets, tried to offer relief.
"We let people on Conway Street go through our garage to make a U-turn to get out of the city," said general manager John Koscher. "But once they did that, they weren't going too far."
Nearly everyone caught in traffic had heard the sirens and seen the ambulances and police cars, which worked their way gradually through the gridlock of downtown.
An ambulance detoured across the sidewalk on Lombard Street near Charles Street as pedestrians scrambled to get out of its way.
"So traffic is not normally this bad in Baltimore?" asked Rich Miller, from York, Pa.
Miller was trying to get to the Wharf Rat, a West Pratt Street restaurant and bar where he had planned to meet friends before the ballgame, when he learned from a reporter about the tunnel fire.
At Harborplace, the air conditioning was cut off - at the request of fire officials - for fear of sucking in contaminated air from the outside. It wasn't long before the atmosphere was stifling.
Unfortunately for her, Harborplace was the first place Christie Shindel of Parkville headed, along with her husband and son.
"I figured, `Well, it's air conditioned here,' she said. "but there's no air conditioning on."
Near the north end of the tunnel, Jay Meekins was walking through his Bolton Hill neighborhood, trying to get information on the potential hazard.
"If it's hydrochloric acid blowing past my house, I want to know, and I want to leave," he said. "It's like we live in Beirut or something."
At Camden Yards, Orioles office workers were told to leave the B&O Warehouse shortly after 5 p.m.
Players and coaches were ordered in from the bullpen and off the field. Word soon reached the clubhouse while players rested after the first game of the scheduled day-night doubleheader.
"Grover [Orioles manager Mike Hargrove] told us we need to clear out," said pitching coach Mark Wiley.
Players joked and screamed in mock terror but moved with urgency, hurrying into the lot for their cars. The Rangers were hustled to a team bus and taken to their hotel, the Marriott Waterfront. Players were out of the stadium by about 5:30 p.m.
The grounds crew scrambled to cover the field with a tarpaulin before leaving.
Broadcasters were ordered from their boxes without breaking down their equipment. Stadium workers were told to leave their posts immediately. For some, that meant leaving suites with buffets in place.
Sterno cans, which can burn for three hours, were left lighted in some cases. Betsey Henning, a luxury suite attendant, heard the evacuation order over a Maryland Stadium Authority walkie-talkie. The odor from the smoke was overwhelming, she said.
"I got dizzy from it," she said. "I was on the skywalk leading from the warehouse to the stadium, and I could smell it. I got a bad taste in my throat, too. The smell was kind of what you might smell in a dentist's office. You couldn't help but notice it."
Joe Foss, vice chairman and chief operating officer of the Orioles, estimated that 2,500 to 5,000 fans were at or around the stadium, along with 2,000 employees, who were evacuated.
Brenda Cooper, a traffic enforcement officer at Conway and Sharp streets who was assigned to divert traffic and pedestrians away from the stadium, donned a pristine white mask as her assignment began.
Several hours later, it was covered with gray sediment. Her nose ran, her throat was dry, and her eyes felt gritty, she said.
The smoke smelled like burning paint, she said.
"It was real thick and dark, and it was coming out of the manhole covers," she said.
At Conway and Howard streets, a disconsolate Jimmy Pickett, 27, was shoving hot dogs that he would have sold for $1.50 apiece into a clear plastic bag to throw away.
He had given away all he could to the motorcycle police officers who had blocked the intersection, and the rest he left on a grate for a homeless man.
"It's kind of play poker money," he said of the couple of hundred dollars he estimated he lost. "But I've got three kids, and it's always nice to have a little extra money."