12 cars derail near stadium

Injury-free incident is near site of '01 fire

November 25, 2007|By Madison Park and James Drew | Madison Park and James Drew,Sun reporters

Federal investigators are trying to determine why 12 railcars of a CSX freight train jumped the track yesterday morning near M&T Bank Stadium, just blocks from the site of the 2001 derailment and subsequent Howard Street Tunnel fire that burned for a week and paralyzed freight traffic along the East Coast.

Nobody was hurt in yesterday's incident, which tied up traffic in the Camden Yards area for hours, but there were eerie similarities to the previous derailment, which sent plumes of acrid smoke into the air and forced evacuations.

Like the July 2001 accident, it involved a CSX train carrying hazardous materials through the century-old downtown tunnel. But this time there was no spill or fire. Three of the cars that overturned or derailed shortly before 8 a.m. carried chemicals, but there was no leakage.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about a CSX train derailment incorrectly reported the position of the train in relation to the Howard Street Tunnel. The southbound train had just pulled out of the tunnel when the derailment occurred.

"The potential for things to go wrong were all there," said Baltimore City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who as a commander was among the first firefighters to enter the tunnel in 2001. "We were fortunate."

Though the area where the accident occurred is industrial, it borders the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood and is home to stadiums where tens of thousands of fans come to cheer the Orioles and the Ravens.

"We were fortunate with the timing," said Roman Clark, a Baltimore City fire captain. "Whereas six years ago, there was a baseball game going on and people at the stadium and things of that nature. Had it been a week from today, because the stadium is hosting the Army-Navy game, it could've been a huge problem." The Ravens play in San Diego today.

Sterling Clifford, spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, said that he anticipated a "very careful scrutiny of whatever investigation takes place."

After the tunnel fire, Baltimore and Florida-based CSX Transportation Inc. battled in lawsuits. More than four years later, CSX agreed to pay the city $2 million toward the cost of cleanup.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat, helped write a safety act that would require railroads to inform local authorities of hazardous materials carried through tunnels. The House of Representatives passed the bill last month.

In a statement yesterday, he said: "This accident had the potential to cause devastation comparable to that of the Howard Street Tunnel fire. While we were very lucky this time, the derailment underscores the need for common sense measures to both prevent and respond to future accidents."

City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said a "thorough inspection" of the track is needed and pledged to follow up on the maintenance records.

The derailment occurred near the 300 block of Stockholm St. The front part of the 131-car train had pulled into the Howard Street Tunnel when railroad cars 29 through 40 derailed a few blocks away under the Ostend Street bridge. A pile of toppled cars was strewn across the tracks.

Two of the cars contained a flammable resin solution, and another car contained the chemical tetrachloroethylene, a colorless, nonflammable liquid that is often used for dry-cleaning and metal degreasing, said Bob Sullivan, a CSX spokesman.

The train was traveling from Philadelphia and headed to Rocky Mount, N.C., at 22 mph in the 25 mph zone, Sullivan said, adding that the wreckage should be cleaned up and the tracks re-opened today.

After the derailment, authorities closed northbound Russell Street and other local streets within a half-mile radius for several hours. The portion of Interstate 395 that leads into I-95 was also closed for the first hour or two. Service on the light rail was temporarily halted for an hour, said transportation officials.

Other freight trains were being rerouted, Sullivan said. The cleanup efforts and track inspection should be finished and pose no service disturbances Monday for MARC train commuters, he said.

Still, the accident once again prompted questions about whether it is safe to haul chemicals through a city. One critic of the railroad industry called the practice "astonishingly reckless."

"This should be considered a wake-up call for Baltimore," said Fred Millar, a transportation safety consultant. "It could've been a lot worse. ... Why is it that we allow these cargoes to come into our city? They should be rerouting these trains out of Baltimore."

Last night, the Federal Railroad Administration said it is conducting a formal investigation of the derailment.

Three federal rail safety inspectors were on the scene - one who reviews the power and equipment of the train, one who analyzes how the engineer handled the train and one who is a hazardous materials specialist, said Steve Kulm, a spokesman for the agency.

"As part of our investigation, we will interview the train crew, take information from the locomotive events recorder - which is like a black box - and get information from the railroad," he said. "Our investigation will take several months until we issue a final report. When something like this happens, we analyze the track, equipment, signal system, and we look at the actions of the train crew."

The National Transportation Safety Board, which conducted an inquiry of the 2001 fire that yielded inconclusive results, said it would not investigate because there were no injuries or hazardous materials released.

madison.park@baltsun.com james.drew@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tyeesha Dixon contributed to this article.

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