The railroad tunnel fire that disrupted downtown Baltimore for three days eased its grip yesterday as firefighters pulled out almost all of the charred rail cars trapped underground, including three derailed hazardous chemical tankers that had posed the greatest risk to the city.
The clearest sign of a return to normality came at 7:05 last night, when the Orioles took the field at Camden Yards after three straight nights of canceled ballgames. By coincidence, the team had scheduled the game months ago to be "Firefighter Appreciation Day."
"We often do not recognize these men and women until disaster occurs, and as this week's train derailment and subsequent fire proved, we all are indebted to them," public address announcer Dave McGowan said at the start of the game.
But even as baseball returned and work crews neared completion of the delicate and difficult job of removing a 60-car freight train from the rail tunnel beneath Howard Street, much work remained to address the far-reaching ramifications of Wednesday's accident.
Until all the rail cars are removed, investigators could not fully review what might have caused the accident or assess the structural condition of the tunnel and the streets above it. City workers waited to begin repairs on a gaping hole at Howard and Lombard streets, caused by a water main break three hours after the train wreck.
City officials hoped to know today whether some streets that had been closed since the evening rush hour Wednesday could reopen. But they expected Howard Street to remain closed, continuing to snarl city traffic at the start of the workweek.
Last night's Orioles game provided the first traffic test as a sellout crowd of 47,234 headed to the stadium. The team plays a doubleheader at Camden Yards today, starting at 1:35 p.m.
City officials braced for problems yesterday, concerned that game traffic would clog downtown streets. But few difficulties were reported, and many fans said they hadn't left home early.
Since Wednesday, the real gridlock had been underneath downtown streets. Frustrated firefighters faced repeated setbacks as they struggled to contain the underground fire, which burned as hot as 1,500 degrees, and to reduce the risks posed by a chemical tanker leaking hydrochloric acid.
Last night, six of the train's 60 cars remained underground. But fires continued to burn or smolder in at least four boxcars containing plywood, paper and scrap. City Fire Department Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said firefighters did not expect to fully extinguish the rail cars until they were pulled from the tunnel.
Work crews saw their first real breakthrough in that effort about 8 p.m. Friday, when three yellow locomotives emerged from the rail tunnel's north entrance near Mount Royal Avenue dragging out seven blackened boxcars - the first group of a string of 45 cars that had remained connected and on the rails inside the tunnel when several cars at the rear of the train derailed.
Overnight, crews pulled four more sets of rail cars out of the tunnel. A string of 13 cars was dragged out just after 4 a.m. yesterday, capping the long night's work.
"The north end [of the tunnel] is no longer an issue," Torres said, as weary firefighters showed signs of relief for the first time in days.
Hydrochloric acid removed
More progress came at daybreak, when work crews pulled out the first of two tankers containing hydrochloric acid from the south end of the tunnel, near Camden Yards. The second hydrochloric acid tanker, which was ruptured, was removed just before noon yesterday after workers pumped most of the acid out of it.
As firefighters trained to deal with hazardous materials stood by in protective yellow suits, CSX workers immediately wrapped the car in a huge blue tarpaulin to contain the chemical vapors.
The third chemical tanker, Car 52, was where fire officials speculated the fire started. That car had contained flammable tripropylene, but firefighters said all of the chemical in the car had burned away. The tanker, with its top severely burned, was removed from the tunnel about 3:30 p.m. yesterday.
"When you consider the magnitude of the incident ... I think we did a real good job of doing what we had to do safely," Torres said.
Crews resumed work to remove the cars last night after the Orioles game ended with a burst of fireworks. Fire officials said the work didn't pose dangers to the public, but they didn't want to startle fans if smoke suddenly appeared.
"We don't want the winds to change directions and blow smoke in the direction of the stands," said Fire Inspector Michael Maybin, a department spokesman. "We don't want to cause a panic."
CSX Transportation spokesman Robert Gould praised the work of firefighters and city officials, who he said were faced with an unimaginable situation.
"You know, if I were asked to write a textbook [disaster] situation, this would be a good one," Gould said. "If you could believe that it's true - people may not buy it."
The accident happened just after 3 p.m. Wednesday as the freight train moved through the tunnel at 18 mph. The train's two-man crew disconnected the locomotives and drove them out of the tunnel after cars lurched, then came to an abrupt stop.
Investigators have refused to speculate about the cause of the accident. But a few possibilities stand out - including braking difficulties and problems with the conditions of the rail cars - said individuals familiar with rail investigations.
Rick Cacini, a federal safety specialist who trains investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, said the emergency braking of a train moving at less than 25 mph would not directly cause it to derail.
Such braking could, however, create so much stress on a car or tanker that a piece of equipment, such as a brake shoe, might break off, fall on the track and cause a derailment, Cacini said. Poorly maintained track or an object left on the rails might also be responsible, he said.
Fire officials have speculated that the fire started after a tanker car carrying the tripropylene ruptured and leaked. Cacini said a well-maintained rail car or tanker should be able to withstand the pressures of emergency braking at low speeds.
"That leak had to be either from poor maintenance of a tanker or derailment, and I think it probably occurred from the force of derailment," he said.
Federal investigators will review track maintenance records, electrical system records and information about when the locomotives and cars were last inspected and repaired.
In addition, investigators will review how the hazardous chemicals were handled, said Steven Solow, former chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section and now a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Law School.
"The question that comes to mind if a train derails is why is there a fire like this," Solow said. "Was there something about the way the materials were packed and placed together that could have caused a fire or was it due to some other unrelated factor?"
Solow said investigators also will look carefully at CSX's history as it relates to this accident.
"You want to think about whether this is a known risk that could have been avoided," Solow said. "Was this something where the company knew of a problem and didn't take steps to deal with it?"
Early last year, federal investigators released a detailed audit of CSX tracks that identified significant defects, including problems on tracks in Maryland.
Among other findings, the audit noted that tie conditions "were generally marginal" along the single, extremely busy track between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The report said the substructure of the rail bed was saturated with water, a situation that can destabilize the rail.
That audit led to a safety compliance agreement that required CSX to complete a number of improvements, including automated track inspections. Federal officials also put in place a "monitoring agreement" for the next year to make sure the company's progress continues.
Gould, the CSX spokesman, said every problem identified in the audit had been corrected at a cost approaching $200 million.
"Any of the issues raised in the report, CSX addressed without question," Gould said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators will write a report on the cause of Wednesday's accident and fire. The investigators did not comment publicly yesterday on their work; the final report could take as long as a year to complete.
Workers and inspectors who got their first look inside the tunnel yesterday described the scene as a sooty, sludgy mess, with rail cars still off the track and smoke still billowing.
"There's a lot of muddy, muddy conditions down there," said Steve Brereton, CSX assistant chief mechanical officer. He said there is thick sand in spots, and plenty of heat.
"It's hot by those cars," Brereton said.
Officials said it was too early to assess the structural integrity of the tunnel. But, Gould said yesterday, "we're encouraged by what we see at this point."
On Friday, city crews stopped work on the broken water main at Howard and Lombard after firefighters raised concerns that the work could cause the roof of the tunnel to collapse.
Public Works Department spokesman Kurt L. Kocher said yesterday that city workers would not resume work on the water main until all the rail cars had been removed and the tunnel had been inspected - probably early this week.
Because the repair work will involve temporarily shutting off water to some businesses in the area, Kocher said he did not expect the weekday work to begin until after 7 p.m.
Howard Street, typically busy with vehicles and pedestrians, was unusually quiet yesterday afternoon. One problem was just getting to the commercial area near Lexington Market, said shoppers LaTanya Whitten and Montaz Young, who said they had been frustrated in recent days by bus service rerouted around closed downtown streets.
"I stood for the No. 23 [bus] for three hours yesterday," Whitten said, complaining that the new routes had not been posted or clearly marked. "Nobody said, 'Well, the buses are rerouted.' When you ask the bus drivers, they say all they know about is the bus they're driving."
And while tourists and shoppers streamed into the Inner Harbor area, oblivious to or unbothered by the still-unfolding urban nightmare just a few blocks away, shopkeepers along Howard Street were dismayed by slow business.
'What can you do?'
Suzy Yoo, co-owner of the men's shoe store Just for Kicks, said the shop was seeing just one-third of its usual business.
"Oh my God, it's been horrible," Suzy Yoo said, even as her husband tried to put on a brave face.
"Nobody can help it," David Yoo said. "It's an accident. What can you do?"
Still, there were signs of improvement. The chaos caused by the derailment eased enough yesterday not only for a baseball game, but also for a wedding to take place.
Liz Kalbaugh and Chris Cheswick exchanged wedding vows in the right-field bleachers at Camden Yards in a 15-minute afternoon ceremony.
Even before the vows and the firefighter tributes at last night's game, about a dozen Oriole players and coaches appeared at Lombard and Howard streets about 3 p.m. to thank city crews for their efforts.
"They risked their lives to bring the city back to life," said pitcher Calvin Maduro. "They're amazing."
Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Andrew A. Green, Rona Kobell, Roch Kubatko, Erika Niedowski, Joe Strauss, Del Quentin Wilber and Kimberly A. C. Wilson contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun