Baltimore firefighters waged a cautious second-day attack yesterday on a nightmarish railroad tunnel fire that shut downtown businesses, knotted traffic, upset freight service along the East Coast and Midwest and disrupted e-mails and cell phone service.
Temperatures in the century-old Howard Street Tunnel rose as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit - hot enough to cause some of the CSX rail cars to glow, according to Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. "You're talking about metal glowing," he said. "The tanks are too hot to off-load. We have to bring the fire under control."
Sections of the 60-car freight train had been burning inside the 1.7-mile tunnel since about 3:15 Wednesday afternoon, and firefighters could not predict when they would extinguish the fire and remove all the cars - 31 of them loaded with a variety of chemicals and goods.
Unable to reach the fire from the tunnel's ends, the Fire Department changed tactics and came in from the top - through a manhole entrance near Howard and Lombard streets.
While Baltimore officials and National Transportation Safety Board investigators focused on the train and fire, repair crews descended under street beds to reroute fiber optic cables running through the tunnel.
The cable damage had an impact well beyond Baltimore, from inoperable cell phones in suburban Maryland, to corporate Web pages that couldn't be updated in Manhattan, to e-mail crashes in Africa.
Meanwhile, a water main break linked to the fire forced the closure of two downtown office towers and obstructed traffic, shutting down Howard Street.
The Orioles canceled a doubleheader yesterday.
Amid the firefighting battle and downtown chaos, officials said the investigation could take up to 15 months, and repairs likely will be long and costly. But they were thankful that there had been few injuries and no catastrophe.
"As terribly inconvenient as this has been, in many ways we've been lucky there wasn't a serious explosion or widespread contamination," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening after touring the accident site near Oriole Park at Camden Yards in late afternoon.
It appeared that the fire began as cars on the 4,000-foot-long CSX freight train derailed at 3:07 p.m. Wednesday. A ruptured tanker car carrying a flammable chemical leaked and fueled an underground inferno about 30 feet below the water main that broke, according to a CSX official inspecting the damage.
Firefighters described a scene of intense heat and dark. "It's just like walking into an oven. The smoke is so thick you can't even see your hand in front of your face," said one firefighter, his face covered in black soot.
All he could see inside the tunnel, the firefighter said, was the glowing metal of tanker cars. "It was a deep orange, like a horseshoe just pulled out of the oven."
In the alternative firefighting plan, taken up about noon, a 5-inch-diameter hose was fed into the manhole on Lombard Street near Howard Street. Firefighters walked into the southern end of the tunnel, connected hoses to the line from above and used a cascade of water to significantly lower the temperatures over the next few hours.
The tactic enabled firefighters to close in on still-burning cars, and investigators to begin unraveling the accident.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, asked about costs of the firefighting, cleanup and repairs, said, "We're not really counting dollars now. All we're counting is the number of cars in the tunnel and the number of brave men and women who are going in there to fight this fire."
Five cars from the end of the train were detached and towed out of the tunnel before 9 a.m. - an empty covered hopper, three empty gondolas, and a charred boxcar whose coat of golden yellow paint was largely burned black. Its cargo - bales of pulp board - smoldered during hours of unloading by a backhoe.
Last night, crews were trying to remove the next cars in line on the northbound train - a chain of four tanker cars hauling thousands of gallons of chemicals. One of them, car No. 53, was found by firefighters and a Maryland Department of the Environment's hazardous materials team to be "leaking along the seams," said MDE spokesman John Verrico.
The 20,000-gallon tanker car was loaded with hydrochloric acid. About a quarter of it was estimated to have spilled - some seeping into storm sewer drains inside the tunnel and carried into the Inner Harbor.
Near the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace, the Coast Guard used floating booms to protect the waters from the flow, which contained "soot and ash and petroleum and traces of the tripropylene," Verrico said. The flow was discovered quickly enough to prevent a fish kill, officials said.
Fixing the acid leak proved difficult. The adjacent tank car, No. 52, "burnt up to a husk," Verrico said. It contained the tripropylene, a highly flammable petroleum compound used in the manufacture of some plastics.