A column of smoke rose into the sky as firefighters raced to the scene of the train derailment. The earth heaved as an explosion rattled residents and pushed windowpanes from their frames. At least one tank car was on fire — no one was sure what else.
It happened Tuesday in Rosedale and it happened on July 18, 2001, when the Howard Street Tunnel beneath the city shook violently and chemical-laden cars belched toxic fumes for days.
Little has changed in nearly a dozen years. The rails and highways that crisscross the crowded metro area still carry a daily stream of poisons and explosives. More come in via ship.
Federal law limits the states' ability to restrict rail traffic except in known high-accident areas. If railroads abide by Federal Railroad Administration rules for transporting hazardous materials, they are free to move their cargo anywhere on the system.
Rail is the safest way to move hazardous chemicals long distances. In 2012, the nation's largest railroads moved 189 million tons of chemicals, nearly all of it without incident. But when accidents happen, first responders need to know what they're facing.
Disaster management experts say that part of the response has changed for the better.
David White, a Texas-based consultant who has handled more than 50 derailments, said rail safety is better than a decade ago and the response of emergency crews has become more sophisticated.
The number of derailments in Maryland dropped from 30 in 2004 to 10 last year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The number of hazmat derailments over the same period declined from 21 to a single incident.
"There were days when railroads wouldn't tell you what they were carrying. Those days are gone," said White, president of Fire & Safety Specialists Inc. "Manifests tell you exactly what's being carried. The information is there if you want it. If there's a problem, it's because a fire department isn't doing its job. It looks like in this case, they did their job."
While firefighters and other emergency responders evidently knew what hazards they faced at the derailment scene, the public was not so fortunate. Television and online news reports garbled the names of two of the chemicals aboard the train, citing Baltimore County Fire Department officials.
"For peace of mind, it would be nice to know exactly which chemicals are involved," said William P. Ball, an environmental engineering professor at the Johns Hopkins University, noting that precise information would help citizens decide whether they ought to evacuate.
In the Rosedale accident, the Maryland Department of the Environment received a fax from CSX Corp., the train owner, at 2:05 p.m., minutes after the crash. It included the layout of the train, the ID numbers and contents of each car, said agency spokesman Jay Apperson.
At the Baltimore County Fire Department's request, the agency sent a team to the scene to monitor air quality and join the county's hazmat team to conduct three reconnaissance reviews of the damaged and smoking train to ensure the accuracy of the manifest and the warning placards on each car.
"We take a whole lot of little components to put it together and figure out what it is," said Capt. Bruce Schultz, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department. "They're not a 'hurry up and rush in' type of incident."
The Maryland Emergency Management Agency sent out its first alert at 2:22 p.m. based on Baltimore County police and fire radio broadcasts. It dispatched a liaison to the scene to assess the situation.
Reacting to news reports, the National Response Center, a clearinghouse staffed by the Coast Guard that alerts federal, state and local agencies, notified more than a dozen entities at 2:36 p.m. At 2:55, CSX contacted the NRC with information about cargo that included terephthalic acid.
That chemical, used in plastics and other products, was in two cars and fluorosilicic acid residue was in another. Some news outlets reported that a much more hazardous chemical was involved, fluoroacetic acid, the lethal ingredient in rat poison, which is prone to vaporization and is on the federal government's list of extremely hazardous substances.
Ball said he was concerned late Tuesday to hear that that chemical was involved, and so advised a Fox45 news reporter who contacted him about it. Other national outlets also reported that fluoroacetic acid was involved, citing an Associated Press report attributing that information to Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman.
Later, Ball said, he learned that the chemical involved was fluorosilicic acid, which is not considered extremely hazardous. While praising local and state officials for their handling of the fire itself, Ball said the confusion over what chemicals were involved and dissemination of potentially alarming but inaccurate chemical identities highlighted for him the need to get accurate information quickly to the news media, and by extension to the public.
"The propagation of conflicting information is only unsettling," Ball said. "Anything that could be done to resolve that would be appropriate."
Baltimore County public safety spokeswoman Elise Armacost said the mistakes occurred during chaotic times.
"We're not chemists in the Fire Department," she said. The chief "received information about the chemicals. Someone misspelled them. We were in an evolving situation."
Armacost said the department would hold a debriefing on the county's response, but expressed satisfaction with the way things were handled, pointing to the fact that no one was killed, no firefighters were injured and the fire was contained.
"We're very pleased at this point with the way this scene went," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich, Kevin Rector and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun