As Rosedale residents and business owners began to clean up after the fiery train derailment, federal officials said Wednesday that a chemical, sodium chlorate, had likely exploded in one of the train cars.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday afternoon's explosion occurred 5 minutes and 23 seconds after the train collided with a truck at an unprotected crossing. Officials will inspect the truck – a 2003 Mack Granite operated by Alban Waste LLC — including an examination of the brakes, board member Robert Sumwalt said at a news briefing.
Sumwalt said the train — two locomotives and 45 cars — was traveling at 49 mph and sounded its horn three times in the 17 seconds before the collision. Fifteen rail cars derailed, including three that carried hazardous materials.
"Although we've made tremendous progress today, I do want to emphasize that we are still very early in the investigation," Sumwalt said as the agency began what will be a months-long investigation, retrieving video footage from the train and examining a timeline of the incident.
Meanwhile, those who live and work in the area dealt with the widespread damage — including blown-out windows, cracked foundations and a loss of structural integrity in some nearby buildings. Throughout the area, massive metal garage doors buckled like accordions and, in one nearby building, a piece of window glass stuck about an inch into a solid wooden door.
Some residents expressed frustration over mixed messages from CSX Corp. regarding how the company planned to assess damage, and owners of some businesses along Lake Drive, which runs parallel to the tracks, weren't able to get to their buildings — leaving them unsure of the extent of damage and when they'd be able to start cleaning up.
"You can't even get back there to get a game plan together. We don't even have a time frame," said Mike Brown, operations manager for the Baltimore Windustrial warehouse just yards from the track. "Basically the whole front of our building is completely leveled."
Brown had made a split-second decision to tell all his employees at the industrial pipe-valve-fitting distributor to evacuate — to run to their cars after the derailment, jump in and drive off down the street.
"It's the best thing I ever did," he said Wednesday. "From that point, it only took about three and a half minutes for that thing to blow up and decimate our building. I'm just so glad I got everyone out."
As police and fire personnel blocked off the area around the tracks Wednesday, crews with CSX and the NTSB analyzed the crash scene and the most heavily damaged areas. Insurance adjusters and structural engineers made their way to nearby homes and businesses in the wider area. A group of men in yellow hazmat suits and white hard hats crisscrossed the tracks just south of the mangled train cars, going into marshy woods on either side with oil-absorbent booms.
Mike Tobias, owner of Eastern Truck and Trailer, a truck repair and fleet maintenance business on the street, stood a block away Wednesday awaiting word that he could return to his shop, where the disruption to business will mean lost time and money.
"We have insurance, but the main thing is getting down there and getting going," he said. "We've got a lot of stuff going on, a lot of commitments. It hurts."
Still, Tobias said, more important to him was that no one was killed.
According to George Ferguson Jr., John Alban Jr., the injured driver whose trash truck collided with the train, said shortly after the crash that he "didn't hear the train until he got on the track."
The result was all around him as he spoke, said Ferguson, one of Tobias' employees.
"I was jumping over trash, you see the engine of the truck, the guy laying there," Ferguson said. "I mean, you've gotta believe in miracles yesterday, because I don't know how he survived it."
Alban was still listed in serious condition Thursday afternoon at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Tobias took a dramatic video from the side of the train just as his crew was locating Alban, but stopped recording to call 911 just before the explosion.
"It looked like the sun. A big white-orange ball came out of the center of it. It was unbelievable," Tobias said of the blast. "My ears were numb last night, like you'd been at a concert all night."
On Wednesday, a police helicopter hovered above the crash scene. Repairmen at nearby businesses boarded up windows that had shattered and overhead garage openings, the doors of which had buckled.
Damage extended all the way to Pulaski Highway, about a quarter-mile away, officials said.
CSX has opened an outreach center at the Country Inn & Suites on Yellow Brick Road in Rosedale, where residents can ask questions about property damage, spokesman Gary Sease said. He added that residents should be skeptical of repair firms in the aftermath of the derailment, and should ask to see contractors' licenses and certifications to avoid scam artists.
The company also hosted a meeting for local business representatives at the Rosario's Italian Kitchen restaurant on Wednesday afternoon.
In the tight-knit community of Maryland Manor near the train tracks, residents said they were grateful no one was killed, though some people weren't sure whether to contact CSX or their homeowner's insurance about damage to their homes.
"People are very confused because they don't know what to do," said Donna Digman, whose home's foundation cracked and roof shifted. "There's a lot of elderly in this area that can't get out of their homes."
Many of Digman's neighbors were turning to her for advice about insurance issues because she's a marketing representative for Servpro, a restoration company. "Take photographs," she told them. "Don't throw anything away."
Digman said a representative of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's office had traveled through the neighborhood Wednesday morning.
"He wanted to know we were OK," she said.
Down the street, Brian Hunter was calmly picking up shards of glass in his backyard, where eight windows had shattered in his pool room. He hoped to find every little piece.
"That worries me, because I have grandkids that come over and run around in their bare feet," Hunter said.
He said he had not heard from CSX and contacted his homeowner's insurance about filing a claim.
Kelly Hollen said she was dealing with damage that included three broken windows, but she was still thankful.
"Accidents do happen," she said. "It could've been a lot worse. … Houses can be replaced. Windows can be replaced. Lives cannot. They're the most precious."
On Tuesday, a window fell on Hollen's 62-year-old mother, who was in bed at the time of the blast.
"Thank God it didn't shatter," Hollen said. "But it scared her to death."
She was one of the few residents who went to a shelter at the Rosedale Volunteer Fire Station Tuesday night.
"The American Red Cross was so awesome," Hollen said, adding that representatives of CSX, the Fire Department and the county Health Department had also shown compassion for her family at the shelter. "They were all lovely people."
The county's Permits, Approvals and Inspections Department will expedite approval of permits needed for repairs, county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said. The department's inspectors have checked some buildings upon request to look for safety issues.
A representative of the county's Department of Economic Development has been meeting with businesses in the area, she added.
Among the most heavily damaged commercial buildings in the area was the Plumbers & Steamfitters U.A. Local 486 Training Facility, which is behind and up a large hill from the Windustrial warehouse.
The power of the explosion came over the warehouse and up the hill and blew out all of the training facility's windows, ripped heavy doors in the large building's interior off their hinges, tore ceiling tiles and lights from their anchors and sent large, snaking cracks through concrete floors and concrete block walls.
It was here that a piece of window glass shot an inch into a wooden door. It was here where no one was killed because employees had left the building to go outside and look at the burning train cars down the hill, said Bob Los, a training instructor at the facility.
"Curiosity does not always kill the cat," Los said. "If they weren't curious, and hadn't gone outside, there would have been body bags coming out of here."
Al Clinedinst, training director at the local, said he was awaiting a structural assessment to determine next steps.
"When something is this huge, you've really gotta bring in the experts and let them tell us," he said.
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