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NTSB, city sifting clues to accident

Sun Staff

As downtown Baltimore returned to normal yesterday, federal investigators gathered evidence that could implicate a water main rupture in last Wednesday's train derailment, a theory that prompted a forceful defense from city officials.

Freight trains resumed service through the Howard Street Tunnel, and CSX officials said they would not hesitate to transport hazardous materials.

The cars in the derailed train withstood tremendous heat, which "proves that these cars clearly afford a very safe way to transport hazardous material products," said CSX spokesman Robert Gould.

At a news conference last night, a National Transportation Safety Board official said investigators had retrieved "earthy material" from the tops of some of the train cars yesterday, an unusual find that could be related to the water main break.

City officials expressed displeasure yesterday that the NTSB had speculated publicly about a possible link between the water main break and the derailment and tunnel fire.

"Quite frankly, I think they're trying to increase the intrigue surrounding their investigation, and they're doing it at our expense, and we're not going to stand for it," mayoral spokesman Tony White said before the NTSB news conference.

The stakes are high in determining the cause of the accident. If CSX is found at fault, it and its insurance carriers would presumably be liable for much of the associated costs; if the water main break is to blame, the city would be responsible.

Mayor Martin O'Malley was to meet with CSX officials today, as requested by the company, to discuss liability for the accident, which closed streets, businesses and much of downtown for days.

City officials called a news conference yesterday afternoon to lay out evidence that they believe shows that the water main break did not cause the derailment.

Fire Department Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres pointed to a chart showing that water flow was steady until about 6:20 p.m. - more than three hours after the derailment - when it spiked. City officials say that is evidence of when the water main burst. Officials handed over that data to the NTSB on Monday afternoon.

"Obviously, we had fire conditions and then a water main break," said Torres. "You can draw whatever conclusions you want from that."

Like an attorney showing evidence to a jury, Torres displayed an enlargement of a CSX track inspection from the day before the accident. "It is important to note that there are no defects noted the day before this incident occurs," he said.

City officials said that in response to an NTSB request, they checked for any earlier reports of leaks at the Howard and Lombard street location, and that they had found none in the past three years. A leak was reported - and fixed - in January in a different water line a block to the south, at Howard and Pratt streets, officials said.

NTSB investigators said they are still looking at whether the water main at Howard and Lombard streets might have been leaking before the accident.

'Earthy material'

NTSB lead investigator Jay Kivowitz said "earthy material" retrieved from the tops of three railroad cars might provide clues to the cause. The cars were 240 feet north of the water main break.

Kivowitz said similar material, which investigators would not further describe, was found near the water main, raising the possibility that falling debris might have landed on the train and played a role in the accident.

"Did this material get on the equipment because of the resulting accident and fire or water, or did it cause the accident?" he said. "We just got the material today. We really don't know."

Investigators confiscated a discolored, 11-by-25-inch piece of the water main.

"We're not saying at all at this point that this is evidence of failure," Kivowitz said. "We're just looking at it."

A mayoral aide argued last night that even if there had been a previous water leak, CSX is still responsible for maintaining the rail bed in the tunnel. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also noted the CSX track inspection from the day before the incident.

In looking at other possible causes, Kivowitz said there is no indication that drugs or alcohol played a part in the accident, though test results are not expected for several days. He said investigators would be looking closely at possible errors in the way cars were inspected or maintained.

Kivowitz mentioned "a little bit of a section where a couple of bricks came out," but said he didn't know if that is significant.

Gould said he was unaware of any damage to the tunnel. He said that regardless of the accident's cause, CSX "wants to be a good corporate citizen" and has indicated to the city that it will likely offset the cost of some workers' overtime. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based company also has begun discussions with stores along Howard Street that lost business because of the street closing.

"We feel this is the right thing to do," Gould said, "and it's in no way an acknowledgment of blame."

Gould said no dollar figures have been discussed with the city or businesses.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said the city could recoup from the railroad some of the money spent for overtime, and street and pipe repair. The city is also considering seeking federal disaster relief.

The city Board of Estimates is expected to consider an emergency request today from the Department of Public Works to quickly seek bids for repairs at Howard and Lombard streets.

The job could take three to five weeks, city officials said. Yesterday, public works employees tore up pavement at the intersection as they prepared to repair the water main underneath.

With the repairs at Howard and Lombard and the NTSB investigation continuing in the background, downtown Baltimore returned yesterday to a mostly normal routine.

For the first time in almost a week, traffic moved smoothly through - and across - the city during morning and afternoon rush hours, police said.

Most city buses resumed regular service, though 10 lines were still being rerouted yesterday. MARC trains resumed regular service from Camden Yards to Washington.

There were still some hitches.

Light rail passengers faced major disruptions, with no service between the North Avenue and Camden Yards stops. The Mass Transit Administration is running shuttle buses between the North Avenue and Patapsco stations. Fulton said light rail would be interrupted for the foreseeable future while the city repairs the water main at Howard and Lombard streets.

Drivers entering the city on Interstate 395 were still being forced to turn east onto Conway Street, making it difficult to get to the west side of town. City officials continued to urge drivers to seek alternate routes, such as Russell Street or Key Highway.

The tunnel reopens

The first train to carry freight through the Howard Street Tunnel again entered the blackened portal near Camden Yards at 8:58 a.m. yesterday, its bells clanging and its engines pulling 57 cars to Bayview, where cargo was distributed to other trains.

The test train, originating at Locust Point, approached the tunnel slowly, with two conductors in hard hats perched at the nose of a blue and gray CSX locomotive. They waved to the four television cameras and four CSX officials recording their progress before disappearing into the tunnel.

Ten minutes later, they emerged at Mount Royal Station without incident, and the train continued on its way. The train was carrying general cargo, but no chemicals, Gould said.

Earlier yesterday, a work train had traveled the length of the tunnel, depositing stone to be used as ballast to shore up the tracks. The train entered the tunnel's north end around 3 a.m. After passing through the tunnel once, it went back in through the south end at 6:03 a.m. to deposit more stone. CSX crews used heavy equipment to distribute ballast around the rails.

At 7:45 a.m., the CSX engineering department turned the tracks over to the rail company's transportation department - and the track was open for business.

Sun staff writers Meredith Cohn and Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

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