10 years after Baltimore tunnel fire, much is unchanged

July 16, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Ten years ago Monday, scenes out of Baltimore gripped the nation and much of the world when a CSX freight train carrying hazardous cargo derailed and caught fire in the century-old tunnel that winds below downtown.

For a week much downtown activity stopped. Three Orioles games at nearby Camden Yards were canceled. Freight rail traffic along the East Coast was paralyzed. Temperatures in the tunnel rose as high as 1,500 degrees as a witches' brew of chemicals burned alongside paper and pulp products, and smoke poured from the openings.

The accident triggered calls to replace the Howard Street Tunnel or to divert dangerous cargo around Baltimore and other densely populated areas.

But a decade later, freight trains continue to rumble through the 1.7-mile tunnel, often with toxic cargo in tow. Work to replace the tunnel could be decades — and more than $1 billion — away.

"I don't think a damn thing has changed," said former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who was among those calling for the tunnel to be replaced. "If there's been any improvement, it's so negligible that nobody would notice it."

Public officials and railroad executives say they have improved their communication and coordination since the 2001 near-catastrophe. The city is notified about hazardous shipments. And CSX says it has taken additional precautions to prevent derailments.

Baltimore was fortunate, given the circumstances: Nobody was killed or seriously injured by the fire. Firefighters smothered the blaze and contained most of the toxic substances that were released. They included hydrochloric acid, used to clean metal; fluorosilicic acid, used to fluoridate drinking water; and propylene glycol, a metal de-icer.

The weeklong drama started July 18, 2001, when a 60-car freight train derailed. After more than an hour's delay, CSX dispatchers notified the Baltimore Fire Department, which found itself trying to fight the fire in blinding smoke and intense heat.

"It was an oven in there," said William J. Goodwin, who was chief of the fire academy in 2001 and department chief from 2002 to 2008. It would be almost a week before the last cars could be removed from the tunnel and traffic could resume.

To some extent, the nation's attention was diverted not long after the fire, when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, focused the nation on airline safety and the threat of terrorism. It took a while before attention returned to the safety of the rails — emphasized once again by the deadly derailment and chlorine gas leak that killed nine in Graniteville, S.C., in January 2005.

Bob Maloney, Baltimore's emergency manager, said 9/11 did force preparedness officials to consider the possibility that something like the Howard Street Tunnel incident could occur as a result of a deliberate attack on the freight rail system.

Maloney, who was a young firefighter-paramedic when the CSX train derailed, recalls the thick, black smoke pouring from the tunnel's ends at Camden Yards and Mount Royal Station.

"I was young, so I was scared. I think we all were," he said in a recent interview.

But Maloney said that with strong leadership and professionalism, the Fire Department brought the fire under control.

Behind the scenes, a lot has changed in the past decade, Maloney said. One of the biggest shifts, he said, is in the relationship between city officials and the railroad.

"Back in 2001, things were probably more adversarial," he said. "I think it's evolved as more of a partnership."

Indeed, in the aftermath of the tunnel fire, the relationship between CSX and the city quickly degenerated into finger-pointing as each blamed the other for property damage. The administration of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley sued CSX to recover its costs of fighting the fire — a dispute that was finally settled in 2006. Neither side admitted fault, but CSX paid Baltimore $2 million.

Since then, there has been a thaw in relations between CSX and local government officials. Baltimore now gets advance notice when hazardous shipments are coming through town — something that wasn't happening in 2001, when officials had a hard time getting accurate manifests for the train that derailed.

Skip Elliott, CSX's vice president for public safety and the environment, said both the railroad and emergency workers learned a lot from the tunnel incident. He said CSX and local first-responders conduct regular joint exercises, and the company pays to send firefighters to an Association of American Railroads training site in Colorado to learn how to deal with train equipment.

Maloney said the railroad has also taken steps to prevent future derailments. After a 2010 incident in which 13 cars left the tracks in and near the tunnel, CSX agreed to replace track well ahead of schedule. It stepped up the frequency of its inspections, and agreed to deal directly with the city on information-sharing rather than requiring Baltimore officials to go through the state.

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