Delay noted in reporting '01 tunnel fire

Public was notifying 911 before CSX, says FEMA

City, firefighters win praise

Crews fighting blaze said to be hindered by wait

April 08, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

A more than half-hour delay by CSX Transportation in reporting the 2001 train tunnel fire under downtown Baltimore hobbled firefighters and allowed the chemical blaze to expand within the tunnel, according to a federal report released yesterday.

When a derailment occurred at 3:07 p.m. July 18, the two-man train crew notified a CSX dispatch center, the report said. The men attempted to walk the length of the train to determine the problem, but heavy smoke forced them back. They uncoupled the locomotive from the other cars and drove out of the tunnel at 3:27 p.m.

CSX did not call the Baltimore Fire Department until 4:04 p.m.

The 40-page report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not specifically fault CSX for the delay, but notes that members of the public were calling 911 because of the heavy black smoke pouring from the tunnels before CSX did.

"Delayed notification of the incident impacted the ability of the responders to gain access to the derailed cars and begin fire suppression activities and hazardous material assessment and containment," the report said.

It continued, "Had there been immediate notification of the derailment, Fire Department personnel may have been able to contain the chemical spill and suppress the fire, thus reducing the arduous tasks and costs of a several-day response to the incident."

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said the railroad company has worked closely with the city Fire Department in reviewing the fire and that notification has not been raised as a problem.

"As soon as we understood what we were dealing with in that tunnel, that it was not just a derailment, we notified the Fire Department immediately and worked hand in glove with them," Sullivan said. He added that the crew needed to determine if the smoke they encountered was more than just exhaust from the locomotives.

Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. declined to comment yesterday because the National Transportation Safety Board has not released its final report on the fire. That is expected within several months.

The intense fire began with the derailment in the Howard Street tunnel of a CSX train carrying freight and hazardous materials. Eleven cars came off their tracks, and one of them -- a tanker carrying tripropylene -- was punctured. The chemical caught fire and set ablaze seven cars carrying paper products.

About that same time, a 40-inch water main that ran directly above the tunnel ruptured, sending water into the tunnel, collapsing several city streets and flooding nearby buildings. It is still unclear which occurred first -- the train derailment or the pipe rupture.

The FEMA report is in large part a gripping minute-by-minute account of the derailment and the efforts by the Fire Department to bring the scorching blaze under control. The tunnel became a cauldron, with temperatures reaching 1,500 degrees.

The report commends the city's Fire Department for its "noteworthy" response to the challenging fire and says that training firefighters received in a simulated fire in an Amtrak tunnel helped them. There were no serious injuries to firefighters or civilians.

The city was also praised for its comprehensive emergency response plan, which was immediately put into place, and for the cooperation among almost a dozen city, state and federal agencies that were involved in dealing with the fire.

After the 60-car train derailed at 3:07 p.m., the conductor and engineer attempted to radio CSX dispatch, but their radio didn't work so far inside the tunnel, the report said. So the engineer used his cell phone to call the dispatch center in Jacksonville.

When trains derail, protocol calls for the crew to walk the length of the train to attempt to locate the problem. But when the engineer and conductor got out of the locomotive, they were met with heavy black smoke, zero visibility and conditions that made it difficult to breathe, the report said.

The crew then uncoupled the lead locomotive, got in and drove out of the tunnel. Sensors show the locomotive left the tunnel at 3:27 p.m. Once out of the tunnel, the crew immediately called CSX and described the nature of the emergency, according to the report.

At 4 p.m., the Fire Department was receiving calls from residents who saw black smoke coming out of both ends of the tunnel, at Camden Yards and at Mount Royal Station. "While the public was notifying the Baltimore Fire Department, CSX Transportation dispatchers were still trying to get the exact location of the derailment pinpointed," the FEMA report said.

The Fire Department arrived on the scene at 4:18 p.m.

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