Residents displaced by landslide blame city, CSX for inaction despite warnings

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Forced to evacuate his rowhouse on East 26th Street after the street collapsed in a pile of dirt, asphalt and parked automobiles on the adjacent train tracks, Jack Temple said he's living in "limbo."

Temple and about 20 other Charles Village residents face up to 40 days away from their homes while city engineers assess imagery from ground-penetrating radar — a kind of ultrasound for the earth — to gauge the structural integrity of the street and the 19 homes that were evacuated.


City officials plan to host a resource fair and offer displaced residents food vouchers, hotel stays and shelter for their pets, but Temple called it inadequate. Neighborhood residents repeatedly warned city and CSX Transportation officials for years about the street's deterioration, he said, and no one listened until the retaining wall above the tracks gave out and the whole block melted away before their eyes.

"They knew the problem was there. They waited so long, and now they're saying they want to do this ultrasound and spend all these resources?" said Temple, a 28-year-old restaurant manager. "It's too late. Now we're going to be out of our houses. I have no idea what we're going to do. A resource center is great, but I guarantee they can't give anyone enough. Enough would be our homes back."


Despite years of complaints about the tilt toward the tracks along the south side of East 26th Street and cracks in the road, few visible repairs were ever made apart from a few patch jobs, residents said Thursday.

City and railroad officials offered few answers Thursday about what happened, why complaints went unaddressed and who was responsible for the integrity of the retaining wall that collapsed.

"We are going through a lot of information," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Thursday afternoon. "At the end of the day, the citizens hold me accountable. I am holding my agencies accountable."

The last structural analysis of the area was done in April and May of last year, when the city sent cameras into underground utility pipes and sewers to evaluate the area's stability and found it to be structurally sound, according to mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris. However, no documents or reports on that study were available on Thursday.

"They are still pulling reports," Harris said.

Last year's review came in response to residents' complaints, said Rawlings-Blake, who said the key question is "what transpired last year to this year to cause that street to collapse?"

One potential cause is the weather, the mayor said.

"We know that we had one of the worst winters in history. We know what that did to our infrastructure. Did that have an impact?" she said. "We know that we had hurricane-level rain over the past few weeks. Did that have impact? Those are the questions that we are going to get to the bottom of."


Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said the railroad inspects all of its infrastructure in the city on a regular basis, but would not say whether the retention wall was the property or responsibility of the railroad.

He said the Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad was focused on helping affected residents, but the railroad was also busy clearing the tracks to reintroduce train traffic, possibly as early as Thursday night.

Katie Kisner, a CSX community affairs safety manager, also would not comment on residents' complaints but said the rail line — a crucial artery through Baltimore, serving the city's port — would be brought back online as quickly as possible.

"This is our main line, what we refer to as our I-95 Corridor," Kisner said.

The tracks covered by debris in the collapse carry about 20 trains a day, CSX officials said. Some of them move cargo daily out of Seagirt Marine Terminal, said Richard Scher, a Maryland Port Administration spokesman. Freight operations out of Seagirt were at a "standstill," Sease said.

The collapse of East 26th Street onto its tracks was one of three accidents CSX was dealing with along its lines Thursday. Also on Wednesday, a crude oil train derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va., dumping some of its cargo in the James River, and, Thursday, a CSX coal train derailed in Bowie.


Officials said they were still trying to determine whether the rainy weather played a role in those incidents. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Lynchburg accident, but has not announced its participation in either of the Maryland incidents.

As for whether CSX or Baltimore taxpayers would be forced to cover the costs of the landslide, Rawlings-Blake said Thursday that it was "way too early" to know.

"We can't turn back the back the hands of time and put the street back together and avoid this incident — but my goal is to make sure nothing like this happens again," she said.

To protect the area from further problems, Rawlings-Blake said, BGE severed power lines and the city redirected water and sewer around the area. The city will also construct sheet piling to shore up the wall and create a new foundation.

William M. Johnson, director of the city's Department of Transportation, said a portion of Charles Street will remain closed while the sonar testing is conducted to evaluate whether the ground has any more hollow areas. He also said the agency deployed engineers citywide to assess locations that experienced excessive flooding to determine whether other neighborhoods were at risk of a landslide.

"Some of the results are still coming back," he said.


All day Thursday, heavy equipment cleared debris from railroad's trench between Charles and St. Paul streets. By the afternoon, three cranes lifted cars and the large stones that made up the retaining wall from the scene as passersby, residents and news crews crammed along a fence line to watch through police tape.

Neighborhood residents shook their heads over seeing their fears about the street's integrity become reality.

Just about one year ago, longtime Calvert Street resident Peter Winch, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, started shooting emails to neighbors and calling 311 and CSX contacts to report troubling cracks in East 26th Street — at least one of which exposed ancient-looking brick from a previous road surface, he said.

Nothing was ever done beyond surface repairs, Winch said.

On Wednesday, "there was no surprise," he said, when his excited 17-year-old son, Lucas, called to tell him the street had collapsed.

"I don't want to be unduly critical of people because there are so many infrastructure issues in Baltimore, I think it's a bit of a nightmare sitting in City Hall looking at all the infrastructure problems around the city," Winch said. "On the other hand, I think we had a lot of evidence that something was going really wrong here."


Winch said Margaret Brent Elementary and Middle School children often walk along East 26th, and Baltimore "could have lost four or five kids" in the landslide.

"It was scary," said Erica McCullough, who runs a home-based cleaning company, Living Legacy, out of her home of 13 years on East 26th. "I have two small children."

McCullough said area residents have been urging city officials for years to fix infrastructure problems that caused the sidewalk and roadway to crack and crumble. Similar complaints have been reported by The Sun since the mid-1990s, when CSX and city officials debated who was responsible for repairing a smaller cave-in at East 26th and Guilford Avenue.

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

"Each day you would come out and see that the fissures in the street were a little larger," McCullough said. About 24 hours after the incident occurred, McCullough stood along a railing overlooking the landslide, wanting to return home.

"It's just hard to look at it. My idea is to pull myself together and come to terms with it. I fought for that house. I became a teacher at that house. That's been my dream for 20 years," she said. "I've walked down this street and wanted to live on this block. I just want it back."

For Temple, the question of where he and girlfriend Annie Plowman will stay was front of mind, but he also couldn't get over the futility of all the complaints.


"Emotionally, we're pretty invested in this place. We love it. We don't want to go anywhere," he said. "I feel even worse for the homeowners on the block who have … brought this up to the City Council and whoever would listen — which turned out to be no one."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Larry Perl and Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.