Civil defense sirens wailed and major highways into Baltimore were closed after a freight train hauling hazardous chemicals caught fire yesterday afternoon in a century-old railroad tunnel under Howard Street, shutting down much of the city's downtown.
Choking black smoke spewed from both ends of the 1.7-mile Howard Street Tunnel, and fear of an explosion or toxic fumes from a cargo that included dangerous acids prompted authorities to ban pedestrians and vehicles within five blocks of its openings at Camden Yards and Mount Royal Station.
Problems were expected to continue today, complicated by a water main break above the tunnel at Howard and Lombard streets that flooded the roadway and nearby businesses, and had officials speculating on whether it was related to the train fire.
Firefighters were trying early today to reach the source of the fire deep in the tunnel, using thermal imaging devices. There was speculation that the train had derailed, but the cause of the fire was unknown.
The crisis began about 3:10 p.m., according to CSX railroad officials and the train's two-man crew, when an emergency air brake halted the train in mid-tunnel.
Its conductor and engineer -- the only known occupants of the northbound, 60-car train -- said they were unable to repressurize the brakes. They thought initially that the smoke was exhaust from the diesel engines and set about uncoupling and driving them the last quarter of the way out of the tunnel.
By the time the Fire Department was notified at 4:15 p.m., black smoke was rising through manhole covers on Howard Street and the situation was falling out of control. The Fire Department sounded five alarms in assembling 125 firefighters and equipment.
As firefighters aimed water cannons from each end toward a blaze they could not see in the smoky blackness, activities above ground slowly came to a standstill.
Drivers were trapped for hours on gridlocked streets, and people waited at curbs for buses halted on their rounds. The Metro subway was closed for an hour until inspectors were sure there was no smoke in the tubes, and light rail service was severed near its midpoint.
The second game of a day-night Orioles double-header was canceled, downtown stores closed, and the University of Baltimore's evening classes halted. The Coast Guard closed the Inner Harbor to boat traffic at 5 p.m.
The water main break about 6 p.m. knocked out electrical power to nearly 1,200 residences and businesses, reduced or cut off water pressure as far south as Port Covington and left part of Lombard Street under 2 feet of water.
Firefighters tried to reach the train from the southern end of the tunnel early but were forced back by what they thought were chemicals that made their skin burn.
About a half-dozen firefighters wearing standard turnout gear went in with hoses, trying to reach the train about three-quarters of a mile away through smoke and intense heat, said Fire Department Lt. Jim Boyer.
"They got within 300 yards of the derailment, but they felt the skin on their necks burning," he said, speculating that chemicals had reacted with perspiration. "You can't fight a fire from 300 yards.
"Any chemical situation, plus in an enclosed space like a tunnel, that's terrifying," said Boyer, a Baltimore firefighter for three decades. "I haven't seen anything like this since I did damage control in the Navy 30 years ago."
At least 22 people, including two firefighters with chest pains, were treated at area hospitals, most for respiratory or eye irritation, officials reported.
Two were full of fluorosilicic acid, two of hydrochloric acid, and one of glacial acetic acid. Other substances on the train's manifest were ethylhexyl phthalate, propylene and tripropylene glycol.
Among the most dangerous was the fluorosalicic acid, a chemical that, diluted, protects children's teeth from cavities. In its concentrated form, it can cause severe burns to skin, lungs, nose and throat, with the effects often taking hours to appear.
Most of the other chemicals on the train were common ingredients used in manufacturing. Typical of these modern multipurpose chemicals is propylene glycol, a compound used to de-ice airplanes and plumbing pipes, and also used as a solvent in food ingredients.
According to their "material safety data sheets" -- standardized information from the manufacturers provided for guidance in accidents -- these chemicals are mildly to moderately irritating to eyes, lungs and throat when they are inhaled, and can burn the skin.
"Acids are very soluble in water, so when you breathe them in, it's as if you're pouring the acid right into your body," said Dr. Jeffrey Hasday, head of the pulmonary and critical care medicine division at University of Maryland Medical Center.
The danger, said Bruce Anderson, director of the Maryland Poison Center, depends on the extent of exposure to the chemicals. But there was no evidence last night that any had leaked.
Hazardous materials experts from the Maryland Department of the Environment tested the air repeatedly at both ends of the tunnel.
"There's no acid content in the smoke," agency spokesman John Verrico reported last night, adding that tests showed a significant wood-ash content.
"In the testing we've been doing, we have not found any compounds of concern," he said. "It's smoke from a fire which is going to be irritating, but we're not finding any acid compounds, which is kind of a sigh of relief."
Train conductor Edward Brown, 52, of West Baltimore, and engineer Chad Cadden, 27, of Stewartstown, Pa., said they did not know what caused the automatic emergency brakes to activate.
"I don't really know what happened," Cadden said, recounting how the train stopped with the tandem locomotives three-quarters of the way through.
Robert Gould, a CSX spokesman, said: "We do not know if it is a derailment or not; we just do not know."
The National Transportation Safety Board said it is sending investigators today.
According to Gould, the crew saw that diesel fumes were building up and uncoupled the locomotives to move them out of the tunnel. But after completing that task and turning back to walk along the train, Gould said, "they recognized they had a problem and notified dispatchers."
Cadden said, "We knew something had happened, and we debated about going back. We had no idea it would be something like this. We didn't know it was something serious."
The city's old civil defense sirens, heard in tests at 1 p.m. every Monday, blared a danger warning about 5:45 p.m. -- the first time since the system was installed in 1952 that it was not a drill, according to Public Works Department spokesman Kurt L. Kocher.
Public Works Director George L. Winfield said the point was to get people's attention -- hoping they would check the news and get the word to close windows, stay indoors and out of the affected area.
But many people were caught downtown and could not get out.
Outside Lexington Market, more than three dozen people spent hours waiting for buses. Many complained that buses bearing "Not in service" signs kept passing. They would race to line up, but the buses wouldn't stop.
"We can't get home," said Donna Delauder, who at 7:30 p.m., had been waiting 2 1/2 hours to catch a bus from work to her Cherry Hill home.
Mayor Martin O'Malley was returning from a political crab feast in Crisfield when he started getting calls that there was a problem, and said he closed roads into the city "to err on the side of caution" because of "an apparent derailment and for the potential for something worse."
"This has been pretty disruptive and there's more to come later on with possible road closures tomorrow," the mayor said last night. "We still don't know what we're dealing with. These things happen."
Police, some wearing cloth face masks, blocked Conway Street from Camden Yards to the harbor.
All major highways and several smaller routes into Baltimore were closed, but by early today all had been reopened.
O'Malley said remaining concerns included "the structural integrity of Howard Street."
The mayor praised fire personnel: "I thought about how lucky we are to have brave firefighters who grab a hose and walk into a tunnel with smoke billowing out of it, not knowing how far they'll get before there might be an explosion."
Reporters contributing to The Sun's coverage of the tunnel fire included:
Liz Bowie, Julie Bykowicz, Tim Craig, Heather Dewar, John Eisenberg, Lisa Goldberg, Michael Himowitz, Richard Irwin, Michael James, Roch Kubatko, Howard Libit, Marcia Myers, Jon Morgan, William Patalon III, Michael Scarcella, Joe Strauss, Michael Stroh, Timothy B. Wheeler, Del Quentin Wilber and Jeff Zrebiec.