Federal transportation officials said yesterday that the most likely scenario behind the 2001 train derailment and fire in Baltimore's Howard Street Tunnel "involved an obstruction between a car wheel and the rail, in combination with changes in track geometry."
In letters to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and CSX President Michael J. Ward, National Transportation Safety Board officials acknowledged that they could find no "convincing evidence to provide a probable cause for the accident," forcing them to settle on a "most likely scenario" as they seek the cause of the multiday underground fire and flood that resulted in at least $10 million in damage.
The findings, however preliminary, are sure to be seized upon as lawyers fight later this year over the multimillion-dollar question of fault in the derailment.
The letters from the NTSB rebuked railroad officials for failing to keep adequate maintenance records and criticized city officials for incomplete emergency planning. The board blamed both entities for poor communications and issued a series of safety recommendations that board Chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners said should prevent future accidents.
"We ... urge you to take action on the safety recommendations," Engleman Conners said in the letters sent yesterday. "The Safety Board is vitally interested in these recommendations because they are designed to prevent accidents and save lives."
The board urged the railroad to keep better records of inspections and maintenance activities at the Howard Street tunnel, and asked the city to include more detailed information about responding to tunnel emergencies in its Hazardous Materials Action Plan. It was recommended that both entities do a better job of sharing pertinent information.
The rail accident occurred at about 3 p.m. July 18, 2001, when a CSX freight train partially derailed in the tunnel. Four of the 11 derailed cars were tankers containing flammable and hazardous chemicals. A tanker containing tripropylene, a liquid similar to petroleum, ruptured and the load ignited, creating a red-hot inferno that taxed firefighters and shuttered downtown businesses for days. Only minor injuries were reported.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said last night that a final report on the accident could be months away. "At this point, that's where the investigation stands," he said, referring to the cause scenario offered in the letters. "There's a chance that we'll know more later, but there's also a chance that we may never know."
Holloway said he had no details on the obstruction or track geometry. "All of that will be laid out in the final report," he said.
Water main break
Meanwhile, city officials rejoiced at the apparent conclusion by NTSB officials in the letters that the accident was not caused by a water main break above the tracks that flooded Howard Street, as some railroad officials had speculated.
The city has filed a lawsuit against CSX to recoup damages, which the NTSB has pegged at $12 million. A trial is scheduled in federal court in December, said City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler.
"We will have a trial and we will prove that CSX caused the derailment and the fire," Tyler said yesterday. "We are still working on identifying all the potential causes, but essentially we believe it was CSX's negligence."
CSX spokesman Robert T. Sullivan bristled at those accusations and said that an initial report by the NTSB had essentially cleared the railroad of any wrongdoing. "They could not point to a track cause or an equipment cause or a train-handling cause," he said.
When asked about the cause scenario in yesterday's letters from the NTSB, Sullivan said he couldn't address it. "There are different theories out there," he said. "But rather than get into speculation, I think what we will do is just explore the cause of the derailment in the litigation that is out there."
Tyler said attorneys handling the case are in the process of obtaining and reviewing CSX records. "We are trying to learn what they have and what they don't have," Tyler said. "But there is not much on some of these subjects."
In their letter to the railroad, NTSB officials called CSX construction and maintenance records "unreliable" and "inadequate." They also reprimanded the railroad for keeping "deficient" tunnel inspection records and failing to share information with the city about track modifications or construction near the tunnel. The board scolded the city for similar lapses.
"CSX record-keeping, with respect to both maintenance and inspection, was identified as an issue during the investigation," according to the NTSB letter to the railroad. "No CSX records were found that described or defined the extent or nature of the repairs and modifications that had been made to the Howard Street tunnel over the years. One CSX official told investigators that no records were kept of general maintenance."
Sullivan yesterday defended the railroad's record-keeping practices.
"CSX believes that its records are well-kept," he said. "In fact, we were able to provide investigators promptly with the records of the most recent inspections that showed the tunnel was in good condition."
When asked to explain why he thought federal officials criticized the railroad, Sullivan said: "We'll let the process run its course."
Tyler said last night that he disagreed with federal officials' assessment of Baltimore's Hazardous Materials Action plan. "We have to look at the truly heroic job that was done in addressing this fire," he said. "Firefighters and police officers protected the citizens of the city."
'Learn from experience'
Still, Tyler said the city is reviewing the action plan as well as emergency procedures regarding the tunnel. In response to federal officials who said the city had failed to provide a revised plan, he said that the document was not yet ready for review.
"These things can always be done better," Tyler said. "You learn from experience."
The city and CSX officials have 90 days to respond to the safety recommendations in the NTSB letters. Tyler and Sullivan said the city and railroad would do so within the allotted time.
To view the safety recommendation letters, please go to www.baltimoresun.com/railreport.