Dave Fitzgerald was taking a cigarette break at the Exxon service station in Parkton yesterday afternoon when he looked up and saw a sickly yellowish cloud rising above the trees over Interstate 83.
"That can't be good at all," the 18- year-old cashier recalled telling himself.
Within minutes, emergency vehicles arrived in response to reports of a chemical explosion and spill in a truck and shut down the Baltimore-Harrisburg Expressway in both directions. Southbound I-83 reopened about 3:30 p.m., but the gridlock on the northbound lanes created a rush-hour headache for commuters and travelers that lasted into early this morning.
The closure caused up to a seven-mile backup and clogged winding two-lane roads in northern and central Baltimore County, authorities said.
Hazmat crews painstakingly labored to repackage about 20 barrels from the back of the box truck, including one that appeared to be boiling over with a muddy-looking liquid. Authorities said that once the containers were stabilized, they planned to ship them to a disposal site out of state.
Meanwhile, motorists inched along, in some cases taking hours to cover a few miles.
"I should have been home by now," said Lee Rauch of Hazleton, Pa. Rauch, 58, left Daytona Beach, Fla., on Wednesday but hit traffic on Interstate 95 and again on I-83. He said he had timed his trip to miss late-afternoon traffic around Baltimore, only to be caught by the spill. He had made an unscheduled stop at the Amoco station on Shawan Road to refill his Dodge minivan.
The truck at the center of the tie-up remained on the shoulder of I-83, where the driver had parked it after he heard a loud sound from the rear about 1:30 p.m.
The truck, owned by Ecoflo, a hazardous-waste shipment contractor in Greensboro, N.C., had earlier picked up drums of waste from the Navy facility at Indian Head in Charles County, according to Meryl Mullane, a company spokeswoman.
Ecoflo was hired by Tristate Government Services, a government contractor based in Chattanooga, Tenn., to haul waste from various sites, said Bob Hubert, a Tristate spokesman.
"Typically you've got paint waste, lab chemicals," Hubert said. "It's just a wide variety of materials."
The truck was heading to a transfer station in York, Pa., where the materials would have been put on another truck for shipment to a disposal facility in Greensboro, Hubert said.
After the noise prompted him to pull over, the driver opened the back gate and a large, rust-colored cloud of smoke billowed out, said Lt. Patrick Taylor, a Baltimore County Fire Department spokesman.
About 55 to 60 county firefighters responded to the driver's distress call, as did authorities from the county Police Department, the state police, the state Department of the Environment and the State Highway Administration.
About 20 of the 72 barrels in the back of the truck contained trinitromethane, a rocket fuel, and urea, a neutralizing agent, said Richard McIntire, a DOE spokesman.
But one of the barrels did not contain enough neutralizing agent, McIntire said. As a result, the liquid, filling several inches of the barrel, reacted chemically, forming nitric acid, a common but highly corrosive chemical that reacts violently with many metals.
"We believe that it was the nitric acid that reacted with the steel in the drum to create a small explosion and create a rust-colored cloud," McIntire said.
The truck's driver, whose name was not released, was taken to York Hospital for observation, a Baltimore County fire official said. He was later released and returned to help at the spill site, the Ecoflo spokeswoman said.
On the parking lot that I-83 had become, some drivers rolled their eyes, banged steering wheels and drove illegally on the shoulder of the four-lane expressway.
About 49,000 vehicles normally travel along the closed portion of I-83 each day, said David Buck, a state highway spokesman.
At 5 p.m., state highway officials said the backup on northbound 83 was about 4 1/2 miles. Once vehicles reached exit 33, near Parkton, they were diverted off the highway onto York Road, to Old York Road and then back onto the interstate at exit 36, Buck said.
Depending on their destinations, some drivers could take Interstate 795 to Route 30 and cut across to Pennsylvania, he said. But for most, York Road was the only option, he said. Traffic lights along York Road were retimed to increase traffic flow, but the thoroughfare was still clogged, Buck said.
The tie-up caught Retosha Woodyard, 25, and her mother on their way home to Harrisburg from shopping at Security Square Mall. After sitting in traffic for about two hours, they pulled over for a breather shortly after 5 p.m. in the Exxon station at Parkton.
"If I knew a back way, I would definitely take it," Woodyard said.
Mike Frisina, 47, of Shrewsbury, Pa., pulled into the Pioneer Pub in Parkton to escape the traffic.
"I could sit in my car for two hours, or I could wait here for two hours," he said, waiting for his dinner at the pub.