Baltimore firefighters waged a cautious second-day attack yesterday on a nightmarish railroad tunnel fire that shut downtown businesses, knotted traffic, upset freight service along the East Coast and Midwest and disrupted e-mails and cell phone service.
Temperatures in the century-old Howard Street Tunnel rose as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit - hot enough to cause some of the CSX rail cars to glow, according to Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. "You're talking about metal glowing," he said. "The tanks are too hot to off-load. We have to bring the fire under control."
Sections of the 60-car freight train had been burning inside the 1.7-mile tunnel since about 3:15 Wednesday afternoon, and firefighters could not predict when they would extinguish the fire and remove all the cars - 31 of them loaded with a variety of chemicals and goods.
Unable to reach the fire from the tunnel's ends, the Fire Department changed tactics and came in from the top - through a manhole entrance near Howard and Lombard streets.
While Baltimore officials and National Transportation Safety Board investigators focused on the train and fire, repair crews descended under street beds to reroute fiber optic cables running through the tunnel.
The cable damage had an impact well beyond Baltimore, from inoperable cell phones in suburban Maryland, to corporate Web pages that couldn't be updated in Manhattan, to e-mail crashes in Africa.
Meanwhile, a water main break linked to the fire forced the closure of two downtown office towers and obstructed traffic, shutting down Howard Street.
The Orioles canceled a doubleheader yesterday.
Amid the firefighting battle and downtown chaos, officials said the investigation could take up to 15 months, and repairs likely will be long and costly. But they were thankful that there had been few injuries and no catastrophe.
"As terribly inconvenient as this has been, in many ways we've been lucky there wasn't a serious explosion or widespread contamination," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening after touring the accident site near Oriole Park at Camden Yards in late afternoon.
It appeared that the fire began as cars on the 4,000-foot-long CSX freight train derailed at 3:07 p.m. Wednesday. A ruptured tanker car carrying a flammable chemical leaked and fueled an underground inferno about 30 feet below the water main that broke, according to a CSX official inspecting the damage.
Firefighters described a scene of intense heat and dark. "It's just like walking into an oven. The smoke is so thick you can't even see your hand in front of your face," said one firefighter, his face covered in black soot.
All he could see inside the tunnel, the firefighter said, was the glowing metal of tanker cars. "It was a deep orange, like a horseshoe just pulled out of the oven."
In the alternative firefighting plan, taken up about noon, a 5-inch-diameter hose was fed into the manhole on Lombard Street near Howard Street. Firefighters walked into the southern end of the tunnel, connected hoses to the line from above and used a cascade of water to significantly lower the temperatures over the next few hours.
The tactic enabled firefighters to close in on still-burning cars, and investigators to begin unraveling the accident.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, asked about costs of the firefighting, cleanup and repairs, said, "We're not really counting dollars now. All we're counting is the number of cars in the tunnel and the number of brave men and women who are going in there to fight this fire."
Five cars from the end of the train were detached and towed out of the tunnel before 9 a.m. - an empty covered hopper, three empty gondolas, and a charred boxcar whose coat of golden yellow paint was largely burned black. Its cargo - bales of pulp board - smoldered during hours of unloading by a backhoe.
Last night, crews were trying to remove the next cars in line on the northbound train - a chain of four tanker cars hauling thousands of gallons of chemicals. One of them, car No. 53, was found by firefighters and a Maryland Department of the Environment's hazardous materials team to be "leaking along the seams," said MDE spokesman John Verrico.
The 20,000-gallon tanker car was loaded with hydrochloric acid. About a quarter of it was estimated to have spilled - some seeping into storm sewer drains inside the tunnel and carried into the Inner Harbor.
Near the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace, the Coast Guard used floating booms to protect the waters from the flow, which contained "soot and ash and petroleum and traces of the tripropylene," Verrico said. The flow was discovered quickly enough to prevent a fish kill, officials said.
Fixing the acid leak proved difficult. The adjacent tank car, No. 52, "burnt up to a husk," Verrico said. It contained the tripropylene, a highly flammable petroleum compound used in the manufacture of some plastics.
"It's speculating for me to say this, but that's probably what was fueling the fire to burn so hot and so long," Verrico said. "The heat situation is making it damn near impossible for us to remove the hazardous chemicals," he said.
Tripropylene produces irritating, but not highly toxic, fumes when it burns, and MDE sampling found no hazardous compounds in the smoke coming from the tunnel, Verrico said.
The cars just north of No. 52 contained plywood and were burning, and "all of the next several cars have either wood products or rolls of paper in them," Verrico said. "We know that at least three or four of them are involved in the fire and there may be more beyond that, but we can't get there to find out."
Firefighters couldn't neutralize the acid leak in the normal way, by spreading an alkaline chemical to neutralize it. In the presence of heat, the combination would have been explosive.
Nor could they pump out the chemical. "That tank is too hot," Verrico said. The plastic pumps that have to be used to pump acid chemicals would have melted.
To cool the acid, firefighters opened the manhole cover and sprayed the leaking car with water for about two hours.
Late yesterday afternoon, a vacuum hose was lowered through the manhole and contractors hired by CSX began to pump the hydrochloric acid from car 53 and an adjacent car, 54, which was not leaking, into tanker trucks. The operation was continuing late last night, authorities said.
At a news conference last night, National Transportation Safety Board member John Hammerschmidt gave an account of the accident based on data from sensors and interviews with crew members.
His chronology began at 3:04 p.m. Wednesday with the locomotives 100 yards south of the tunnel entrance.
The train's emergency braking activated at 3:07 p.m., and the crew was unable to reset the air brakes, he said. The locomotives were about a half-mile from the tunnel's northern end.
Unable to contact radio dispatchers, the crew used a cell phone to call a supervisor and report there had been a problem.
At 3:15 p.m., they shut down the leading two locomotives and then uncoupled the third from the train cars to drive out and get away from fumes in the tunnel. The engines left the tunnel at 3:27 p.m., sensors showed.
The crew said they reached the dispatcher from outside the tunnel about 3:25 p.m., then noticed minutes later that the fumes were not dissipating - and appeared to be smoke - and alerted a dispatcher.
According to the train crew, Hammerschmidt said, city fire personnel arrived at 3:35 p.m. and were given the train's cargo manifest - although the Fire Department has said it was notified at 4:15 p.m.
By the time firefighters were arriving, the situation was beyond control deep in the tunnel.
Firefighters from Engine 13 and Truck 16 arrived first and saw smoke floating from the tunnel's northern opening. The engineer and conductor told fire officials the train might be carrying hazardous materials, and thought there was a fire but didn't know where.
The firefighters marched into the black smoke. But after only a few steps into the tunnel, the firefighters said they could not see.
"I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," said firefighter Daniel MacFarlane.
"I just didn't want to die," said Capt. James Smith.
Firefighter Jim McCafferty worried about getting lost and never being found.
Wednesday night, the firefighters tried another mission into the tunnel. They jumped into the back of a flatbed CSX truck and rode in reverse toward the train. They'd drive a few feet, get out and walk, scouting the terrain to make sure the truck didn't run into the train.
But even on the truck, they were nervous. "CSX guys told us the tires might explode in the heat," MacFarlane said. "That meant we couldn't get out."
Yesterday, investigators reported finding 800 feet of rail that had spread apart behind and under some of the rear cars. But they had not determined what caused the derailment, ruptured the tanker car or ignited the fire.
The governor stopped by the Camden Yards end of the tunnel for a quick tour and meeting with the mayor in late afternoon, but chose not to climb down to the CSX tracks.
"The last thing they need is an elected official trying to get into the tunnel, so I didn't go in there," Glendening said. "These men and women here just lived through something extraordinary and we have to remember what they've done."
State officials said they considered asking the federal government to declare the site a disaster area but realized that it does not meet the qualifications.
"After this is over, we'll sit down for some hard discussion of recouping this cost. This is a very expensive operation," Glendening said. "In the long term, "we may seek federal assistance to repair the tunnel."
By evening, firefighting had ceased while contractors tried to remove the cars loaded with hazardous chemicals.
Fire officials explained it was too dangerous for their men to work in the tunnel until the cars were gone.
The number of firefighters on the scene was reduced to 50 from the city department - one-third of the overnight high of 150 from both the city and Baltimore County.
With the 800 feet of track spread and unusable, the contractors laid down temporary track last night. They were slowed late last night in trying to remove derailed car 55, loaded with a relatively non-toxic plastic compound called ethyl hexyl phthalate, because its enormous weight seemed to move the temporary track.
The most dangerous of the train's load of chemicals, according to experts, is fluorosilicic acid - and there was no indication it was leaking. But firefighters could not determine whether fire was burning near it, because the acid was being carried far ahead in cars 29 and 30.
"If it gets hot, fluorosilicic acid can release hydrofluorisilicic acid, and that's extremely toxic," said Melanie Lesko, a chemistry professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
At three schools near the north end of the tunnel - Mount Royal Elementary, Booker T. Washington and Samuel C. Taylor - "there have been some complaints of smell and smoke," Verrico said.
"We've gone in and tested. ... There's no trace of any chemical. There is a slight trace of smoke," he said.
Verrico said firefighters were concerned about the health of residents in some apartment buildings near the north end of the tunnel, where the smoke was heavy. "They're going to be continuously checking on the residents of those buildings, especially the elderly," he said.
The accident also postponed two games between the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers - cancellations that Joe Foss, chief operating officer for the Orioles, said cost the team about $3 million in concession spending, tickets and parking.
Sun staff writers contributing to this article included Tim Craig, Heather Dewar, Stacey Hirsh, Stephen Kiehl, Robert Little, Jon Morgan, Erika Niedowski, Andrew Ratner, Del Quentin Wilber and Kimberly A. C. Wilson.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times