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The train fire in the Howard Street Tunnel was terrible for Baltimore, the CSX railroad and the Orioles. But for an elite group of companies it meant big business.

Almost from the moment thick, black smoke began billowing from the tunnel Wednesday afternoon, businesses that specialize in responding to this sort of disaster descended on the wreck site.

More than a half-dozen companies have worked the scene. Some have helped to right derailed boxcars, others have pumped hydrochloric acid from wrecked tankers and still others monitored the air inside the 1.7-mile tunnel to protect workers.

"Everybody and their brown dog is here at this thing," said James Sawyer of Texas-based Georgetown Rail Equipment Co., wedging Copenhagen chewing tobacco into his cheek. His job is to clear ditches at the tunnel entrances.

'Masters of disaster'

Officials and workers from these companies said their goal has been to clean up an awful mess and make sure no one gets hurt in the process. But there is a hint of swagger.

"Masters of disaster" is the motto of HMHTTC Response Team Inc. of Parsippany, N.J. The back of one of its trailers announces, "Where angels fear to tread."

"Any chemical emergencies, spills of any sort, we do," said Mike Klos, Maryland region assistant manager, his low voice rumbling like a freight train.

Klos said he got a taste of the tunnel early on. "All the fire and smoke and heat - I swear the horned devil was coming at me," he recalled.

In some cases, contractors had to cover great distance to reach the scene.

Sawyer hurriedly flew from Omaha, Neb. - where he had been working another job - to Chicago, then to Cleveland and finally on to Baltimore.

Ditto for the heavy-duty machines. Georgetown's equipment on the north end of the tunnel came by rail from Providence, R.I., while the equipment at the south end came from Ohio. Many trucks bore out-of-state plates.

And there has been little rest for days. David Johnson, who works for HMHTTC, slept on Lombard Street on Saturday night. Actually, the 18-year-old from Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County spent the night on a parking garage driveway, fashioning a pillow out of work clothes.

Expert services

CSX is happy to rely on these contractors.

"These are the experts," said spokesman Rob Gould, who was quick to note that their services are not often needed. There were 15 incidents last year in which hazardous materials were released.

CSX called Nicholasville, Ky.-based RJ Corman Derailment Services at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The company was on the scene by 4 a.m. Thursday.

By yesterday afternoon, Corman had about 16 workers on the job. Noel Rush, company president, said that despite the chaos inside the Howard Street Tunnel, he has seen worse.

In May 2000, a train caught fire in Eunice, La., and shot fireballs into the sky and ash over neighborhoods. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated.

"That was real bad," Rush said

One of the companies Corman is working with is Cranemasters. The company's bulldozer pulled the first rail car out of the tunnel. It will be days before the bills are tallied. Gould said he doesn't have "even a remote estimate" of the final cost.

Klos, noting that businesses like his are always on call, said, "You're looking at a good chunk of change."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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