Five days after a train derailed and caught fire in a tunnel beneath Baltimore, city officials offered news last night bound to surprise and relieve commuters who had been stuck in traffic jams stretching from Baltimore's central business district to the highways feeding the city: Nearly all downtown roads will be open this morning.
Howard Street, closed since the derailment and fire on Wednesday, was opened last night except for a two-block stretch. Rail traffic is expected to resume today on the line where the accident occurred.
Bus service should improve greatly, officials said, and the full route for the MARC Camden line will be open this morning, though light rail will not be back to normal.
The decision to open streets and send trains through the tunnel followed an inspection that began late yesterday afternoon. Engineers and officials, who had feared that parts of the tunnel might have been badly damaged, pronounced it in "excellent shape."
Working into the night, construction crews were laying new track inside.
"This city's back in business," Mayor Martin O'Malley declared as work crews began removing the dozens of orange pylons that have been cursed by motorists since Wednesday.
Howard Street was closed because of fears it might have been weakened when a CSX train loaded with chemicals derailed and caught fire in the tunnel below.
The National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, was focused on track and rail equipment and this question: Did a water main break cause the derailment that led to the fire or did the fire cause the main to break?
"We're definitely looking at whether the water leak was the result of the derailment or a contributing factor," said Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman.
Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said the city is cooperating with the NTSB investigation. He said the agency is requesting documents and DPW is asking city lawyers to review the request.
"No documents have been denied," Kocher said.
Meanwhile, CSX officials said they could provide no explanation of why employees apparently did not notify fire officials about problems in the tunnel for more than an hour after they began.
The investigation into what happened and why could take months. Of more pressing concern yesterday was restoring east-west traffic along Howard Street and 14 streets that cross or feed into it.
After removing the last smoldering car from the tunnel shortly after daybreak yesterday, Department of Public Works inspectors entered the tunnel from the north end about 4:30 p.m. to determine whether it could withstand cars and trucks passing above, said Kocher.
Inspectors could not get into the tunnel for nine hours after the last boxcar was removed because smoldering timbers had to be extinguished and carbon monoxide levels were dangerously high, officials said.
Good news at last
But another round of frustration connected to the accident finally gave way to good news that seemed to surprise even city officials when engineers presented their findings.
The mayor said last night that the inspection found the expected minor damage to bricks in the tunnel but none of the feared structural problems.
Officials said a "test train" of 40 to 50 cars would be sent through the tunnel this morning. If all goes well, regular rail traffic will resume today, at reduced speeds.
Officials had closed Howard Street from north of Mount Royal Avenue south to Pratt Street after the 60-car freight train caught fire.
Effects of the closure rippled through yesterday morning's rush hour as city and state employees who had taken advantage of liberal leave last week returned to work.
Traffic on Interstate 395 into downtown was stacked up more than a mile on northbound Interstate 95. Drivers on Pratt Street were passed by people on foot.
Street closures had forced Mass Transit Administration officials to reroute 23 buses. Most of them will be making their normal stops today, officials said, though a few disruptions are expected.
MTA officials also warned that light-rail service will continue to rely on buses to transport riders between the Patapsco and North Avenue stops.
The Camden Yards MARC train station will open this morning for the first time since the derailment. The first train to Washington's Union Station is scheduled to leave at 5:15 a.m.
Yesterday morning, a broken water main finally stopped shooting water onto Howard Street.
The pipe spewed 76 million gallons of waters during the 100 hours it was broken, officials estimated. Crews stopped the flow by replacing a broken valve, and work began yesterday to install a new main.
That broken pipe is a focal point of the investigation by federal officials.
In the days before the accident, CSX inspection crews reported water in the tunnel, though details of those inspection reports were unavailable yesterday and it remained unclear whether the amount of water was significant or could have caused problems.
"I don't think it's extraordinary that there is some water in underground tunnels, but they're looking to see if water infiltration is the issue," said John Contestabile, safety officer for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Tests were to be conducted on the pipe, but investigators were not discounting other causes for the derailment.
"I think what I can say is they are looking at three possibilities: track failure, equipment failure or whether the water main break may have had something to do with it," Contestabile, said.
Investigators have begun reviewing records of track inspections back to 1996, as well as paperwork on the condition of the cars and signals, though officials said there is no indication that the signals malfunctioned.
Workers powerwashed the tracks yesterday so investigators could begin to determine which sections of rail should be taken to their lab for metallurgical tests.
They also examined railroad car wheels and axles for signs of equipment failure or improperly loaded containers.
"No problems have been singled out at this point," said Holloway.
Sifting the facts
Investigators are still trying to reconstruct the initial emergency calls to the city Fire Department.
Investigators said the crew's first call was to the CSX dispatch center in Jacksonville, Fla., at 3:07 p.m. Wednesday. What happened next is still being pieced together by the NTSB.
"We're asking CSX, 'What happened to the information given to you and what did you do with it and what time was the Fire Department notified?'" said Holloway.
He said investigators are reviewing time logs from the Fire Department as well as CSX records.
CSX offered no further explanation yesterday for why city Fire Department records show railroad workers did not call firefighters until 4:12 Wednesday afternoon - about an hour after the train's crew scampered out of the tunnel to escape fumes.
CSX spokesman Rob Gould referred all questions about the chronology to NTSB officials. "They prefer nobody talk about any facets of the incident," he said.
On Thursday, NTSB member John Hammerschmidt, based on information obtained from CSX, said the train's crew members reported that firetrucks arrived at 3:35 p.m. near the tunnel's northern mouth.
But Torres disputed that account yesterday.
"That's simply not true," he said.
According to Torres, the first call came about 4 p.m. from someone not with CSX who saw smoke at the tunnel's south portal. Then, at 4:12 CSX called to report a possible derailment, he said.
Torres said that although the fire quickly grew after the first units arrived at the tunnel's north entrance around 4:17, he cannot say whether firefighters could have doused the fire with earlier notice. That, he said, would be determined by investigators.
Senators seek rail study
In addition to the NTSB investigation, Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski are proposing an amendment to the transportation spending bill now before the Senate. It would provide $750,000 to assess the condition of railway infrastructure in the Baltimore area.
The amendment could come up for a vote as soon as today as the Senate labors to complete action this week on the $60 billion measure.
Yesterday, the Senate voted 96-0 to approve a broader study on the risks associated with the transportation of hazardous and radioactive chemicals throughout the country, by highway and waterway as well as by rail.
'It has been horrific'
For merchants on Howard Street, the studies are welcome, if a bit late.
They said yesterday they were hoping for a quick reopening of the streets.
"It has been horrific. That's the best I can say," said Alvin J. Levi, owner of Howard Street Jewelers and president of Market Center Merchants Association, which represents 700 mostly small businesses on the city's west side.
Yesterday, six CSX claims representatives fanned out along Howard Street, asking shopkeepers if they had suffered lost business from the closing of Howard Street.
"We want to try and not address claims issues in months; we want to address them now and try to ensure people are made whole immediately," said Gould, the CSX spokesman. "This is not anything related to blame. This is what we believe is the right thing to do as corporate citizens."
Gould said he did not know how many businesses have filed claims, or how claims agents will calculate how many shirts a clothing store might have sold if Howard Street had not been closed.
While efforts were made to placate business owners, a whole new group of people was being affected by the incident.
Fifty of the steel cars, some still smoldering, were moved about a mile from the Howard Street Tunnel to the Mount Royal Siding, an area where trains can pass one another, CSX officials said.
The remaining charred cars were taken from the southern end of the tunnel to a rail yard at Locust Point, near the Fort McHenry Tunnel. That location is used mostly as a transfer facility.
By late afternoon, firefighters at the Mount Royal site stood in knee-deep mud, continuing to douse the fire in the last two cars. Piles of packaged Xerox computer paper that had been emptied from the cars were bulldozed in a pile to the side.
Several blocks of Sisson Street, just above the rail siding in the Remington neighborhood, were closed. Smoke drifted above the neighborhood, and some residents complained of the stench.
Fire officials expected the fire to be extinguished by nightfall.
Sun staff writers Stacey Hirsh, Stephen Kiehl, Karen Hosler, Marcia Myers, Joe Nawrozki, David Nitkin, Michael Scarcella, Andrea K. Walker and Laurie Willis contributed to this article.