Tunnel fire left few scars, many questions

A year later, hazmat cargo rolls under Howard Street

July 18, 2002|By Marcia Myers and Laura Vozzella | Marcia Myers and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A new track running through Baltimore's century-old Howard Street tunnel is about the only sign left that one year ago today a CSX train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed, ruptured and fueled an inferno that taxed firefighters for days, closed downtown businesses, canceled baseball games and created a regional transportation logjam.

Investigators still are not certain what caused the accident. It might be months before they know, if ever, given the apparent complexity of the case.

Meanwhile, at least two dozen trains continue to use the tunnel daily, many of them carrying the same sorts of hazardous materials under Baltimore streets as the 60-car train that derailed last July 18.

City and railroad officials believe there is minimal risk of a repeat accident. After the derailment and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they stepped up surveillance of the tunnel with better security and more inspections.

Even if a similar accident occurred today, they say, they are better equipped to respond with marked evacuation routes, better emergency equipment and streamlined communications with state agencies.

"It certainly made us more keenly aware in very real terms of our city's infrastructure, assets and vulnerability," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday. "What we've done is look at critical points that come through Baltimore, whether it's bridges or tunnels or shipping lines. There's a heck of a lot of United States commerce that comes through our city."

CSX crews now monitor the tunnel daily.

"That tunnel is virtually an all new railroad, and we're inspecting all aspects of the tunnel on a regular basis," said company spokesman Bob Sullivan.

But others say meaningful change will come only by routing hazardous chemicals around populated areas or replacing them with less dangerous substitutes.

"A person could go to jail for transporting some of these same chemicals through the Harbor tunnel," said Andrew Fellows, of Clean Water Action, a national environmental group. If the Howard tunnel accident wasn't lesson enough, Sept. 11 underscored the dangers, he said.

"It really brought home that it doesn't have to be an accident, it could be an intentional attack that threatens millions of people," Fellows said. "The mission should be to look for alternatives to deadly chemicals, especially in relation to transportation routes."

Although investigators have found no evidence of sabotage, O'Malley suggests the derailment could have been an act of terrorism, a "dry run" for Sept. 11, given the fact that the stadium was packed for a double-header, in the middle of rush hour, and the train contained highly flammable cargo.

"I don't know what the cause is, but given the fact that these people are out to kill us, it's certainly not paranoid to think an intentional human [act] was behind it," he said.

O'Malley called for tighter security along the tracks, including "impregnable fencing" and surveillance cameras near population centers.

"Long-term, we've got a long way to go in terms of CSX and Amtrak improving the security of their rail lines," he said. "And that should not be a cost that the people of Baltimore have to absorb by themselves."

Sullivan of CSX said the company has increased security, but he would not give details. He added that rerouting hazardous materials means less efficiency, more cost to shippers and potentially added danger.

"What you ultimately would do if you reroute these things is put them right onto the highway, which is not where you want them to go," he said. "Rail is by far the safest mode for handling hazardous materials."

The tunnel accident, which occurred at 3:07 p.m. a year ago, set off a disastrous domino effect, including a fire that burned for five days and a water main break that flooded the Howard Street corridor.

Only a few people were treated for minor injuries, such as smoke inhalation. Had the train been carrying even more highly flammable propane, or more toxic chlorine, the consequences could have been deadly.

Investigators have not determined whether the derailment and burning tanker caused the water line above the tunnel to burst, whether the water pipe broke first and deposited debris onto the rails, or whether something else forced the train off the track.

The National Transportation Safety Board has studied the rails for possible fractures, examined 22 pieces of the broken city water pipe for corrosion and interviewed dozens of witnesses.

Inside the tunnel yesterday, there was little to suggest the chaos there a year ago. A patch of four large steel plates covered the hole in the tunnel's brick roof where water from the broken pipe had poured down. Empty lines that once held fiber-optic cables drooped along the walls, their replacements attached nearby. CSX has washed thick coats of soot off the sides of the tunnel, revealing ancient brick and stone.

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