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Balto. Co. train derailment drew 911 calls from miles away

Railway DisastersTransportation DisastersHighway and Road DisastersTransportation IndustryNational Transportation Safety Board

An employee at a scaffolding company next to the railroad tracks in Rosedale was one of the first people to see the train leave its tracks after it rammed into a truck last month.

"There's just a train wreck in front of us and it's on fire," the man said, in one of more than 40 recorded 911 calls released Friday by Baltimore County police. "There's just like a fire and it's nasty."

"Did the train derail?" the dispatcher asked. "What type of train is it?"

The questions would continue in 911 calls from Bel Air to Baltimore City, dozens of them, for nearly an hour. The recordings show that the moments after the crash were filled with panic and confusion.

Soon after the derailment, flames ignited the train's chemical cargo and triggered an explosion heard around the Baltimore area. Some people wondered whether a bomb had gone off. Others asked if something had fallen from the sky.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the accident, which seriously injured the driver of the truck, hurt four others and damaged several buildings near the crash. Officials have said the truck failed to stop at a poorly marked grade crossing before the wreck.

Multiple chemicals leaked from the train and a car carrying sodium chlorate — a federally designated hazardous material — fueled the explosion. Emergency officials determined that the fumes were not hazardous to public health.

Elise Armacost, Baltimore County public safety spokeswoman, said emergency dispatchers fielded 270 calls between 1:59 p.m. to 2:53 p.m., a large number for a single event, though not a record. By comparison, more than 1,000 calls that came in during the powerful derecho storm that caused widespread damage last June 29.

Callers after the derailment reported broken windows, shaking foundations and billowing smoke — many believing that whatever they heard had occurred next door.

One man told a Baltimore County dispatcher that he had heard a blast "right behind my house."

"It sounds like it went through my house," he said.

The sounds, smells and aftershocks from the accident worried many at the time.

"It's on Lake Drive in Rosedale," a man reported. "I don't know if this thing is going to blow up. … Maybe it's going to blow up. I'm going to get out of here."

"Sir," the dispatcher replied, "I'm trying to get the location."

"I don't want to get myself blown up," he said.

Another man calling from Lake Drive urged dispatchers to send paramedics.

"There's been a terrible train accident," he said. "Hurry up. There's going to be some bad injuries. … Listen, I want to go help them. There's going to be injuries, trust me. The truck got demolished."

Others said their bosses were ordering them to flee.

"I got to go," one man told a dispatcher. "I got to go."

Among the initial calls was a CSX representative reporting the accident.

"Do you know what the train was carrying?" a dispatcher asked him.

"Train has freight of all kind," he said. "I see a few hazmat cars on here. Fluorosilicic acid."

"So it is carrying hazmat materials?" the dispatcher responded.

"Yeah, it has one, two, three, four hazmat cars on it."

Moments later the monstrous fire was accompanied by an explosion, which could be heard over one emergency call.

"It just blew up, ma'am! Holy [expletive]!" the caller said on the 911 call. "You didn't hear that? My God. There just was a huge explosion!"

Another woman, called from a location several miles away from the accident, her voice trembling over the phone.

"It was worse than that earthquake we had, the way we. … I want to, I want to get out of here. Which way is it?"

"It's in the White Marsh area," the dispatcher told her. "The impact may have been what made you feel it through your house."

"Oh God," the woman said. "My son lives over that way. It's not near Kings Court, is it?"

"I don't think so," the dispatcher said. "But go ahead and try and give him a call."

Four miles away, at Eastern Avenue and 54th Street near Eastpoint Mall, a woman at a bus stop called it in, too. Another woman at the mall ran while speaking to a dispatcher, thinking the explosion had occurred nearby.

"Hold on a minute," she said. "I'm running. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. I'm running. Hold on. … No, I can't see it. … It just was a big boom."

The impact shook a woman's house on Avenal Road in Essex, seven miles from the crash site. It made a woman 11 miles away on Susquehanna Avenue in Middle River wonder if the explosion came from her neighbors, who had shot off fireworks the day before. One woman, who could only see smoke, said, "Oh my gosh, Lord have mercy Jesus, oh my gosh."

A woman watching the news knew where the wreck had occurred but still needed dispatchers to tell her that was really what she felt.

"My whole house vibrated, and I'm not even close to it," she said. "My son thought the dryer had fell through the floor."

Over and over, dispatchers told incredulous callers that the blast was farther away than they thought.

"No, no, my gosh, no," said a man off Perry Hill Boulevard. "That's a long way away."

Said a woman in Essex, "It was definitely close to here."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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