Heavy smoke from a train fire in midtown Baltimore billows out of the entrance of an underground tunnel at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, July 18, 2001. Photo by Kenneth K. Lam/The (Baltimore) Sun.

You never know when disaster will strike. For Baltimore, it hit at 3:07 p.m. on July 18, 2001. It was just another sultry, summer afternoon when a diesel engine towing 60 freight cars rumbled into the Howard Street tunnel running through the heart of the city. Each day two dozen trains use the century-old tunnel beneath busy downtown streets and nobody is the wiser.

This time, though, something went terribly wrong. Possibly the rails buckled or a car lurched off the tracks: Federal investigators have yet to determine the cause. Sparks from the derailment apparently ignited the train’s cargo, which included paper, wood pulp, and a variety of chemicals. More than an hour passed before fire trucks arrived to find black smoke billowing from both ends of the 1.7-mile long tunnel.

Word that a train was on fire in the tunnel reached The Sun newsroom around 4:30 p.m., about a half-hour before the paper’s editors usually meet to determine what stories will be published the next morning. When we flipped on nearby television sets, we saw that TV news cameras already were broadcasting the hellish scene.

Metro Editor Sandy Banisky summoned editors and reporters to the center of the newsroom, where she announced that we would need to respond fast and in force to what appeared to be a major late-breaking story. More reporters and photographers were promptly dispatched to help out those who were already there or on the way.

As reports began to pour in, the news quickly grew worrisome. At least some of the chemical cargo was hazardous, raising the possibility the fire could be releasing toxic fumes or might trigger a violent explosion. People at the scene reported an acrid odor and burning eyes.

Shortly after five p.m., baseball players and fans assembling for an Orioles game that night were ordered to evacuate Camden Yards, near one end of the smoking tunnel. Soon afterward, police began closing major highways into and through downtown, creating gridlock out of an already jammed rush hour. Then, around 5:45 p.m., Civil Defense sirens—a relic of the cold war still tested once a month at lunchtime—wailed for the first time for a real emergency. Some TV announcers urged residents of one neighborhood near the tunnel to leave their homes, while firemen asked people to stay indoors, sweltering with windows closed and air conditioners off.

News Reporters Assess the Dangers

Adding to the confusion—and heightening fear—was the vagueness of information about what the risks were. Fire and emergency officials seemed unable or unwilling to release the train’s manifest detailing just what was on board. Environment beat reporter Heather Dewar got on the telephone to see if she could find out from state officials, who are supposed to be notified when hazardous materials are spilled or released into the air.

Of the multisyllabic chemical names being thrown around at the scene (many of them garbled initially), one was immediately recognizable: hydrochloric acid. With 10 years of experience covering environmental issues before becoming an editor, I knew it was a highly corrosive liquid that could cause severe burns on contact with skin or eyes, and fumes could cause coughing and shortness of breath.

Another chemical name being mentioned was even more troubling: hydrofluoric acid. Used to etch glass and metals, it can burn through skin to destroy bone, cause permanent blindness, serious damage to lungs, and even death. What’s more insidious, skin contact with relatively low concentrations won’t cause pain or burning sensations until hours later—by which time serious injuries have already occurred.

Realizing that we could be sending reporters and photographers into harm’s way, I warned Sandy that we did not know for sure what was on the train, but that there could be some very dangerous substances leaking or burning. I urged her to tell all of our staff on the streets to exercise caution and to leave the scene promptly and seek medical help if they felt any burning or had trouble breathing. But I recognized that those instructions would do little to protect our people if they were enveloped in an acid-vapor cloud.

Like many news organizations, we’d never planned for covering a chemical emergency. We had had plenty of practice scrambling to cover weather disasters—blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes. We even had a plan, though it was badly outdated, for covering an airplane crash at Baltimore-Washington International airport. But nothing like this.

One of our new reporters, Kimberly Wilson, fresh from Seattle where she had helped cover recent rioting at the world trade meeting there, asked where our gas masks were. Her former paper had issued masks so reporters covering the conflict wouldn’t be overcome by tear gas, she said. We had none.

As if a potentially toxic fire was not enough to worry about, a major water main that ran just above the tunnel broke around six p.m., knocking out electrical power to homes and businesses, flooding some downtown streets, and reducing or cutting off water pressure to parts of the city. Telephone and Internet service also were interrupted—both locally and in far-flung places—because the underground inferno fried fiber-optic cables running under downtown streets that carried a major chunk of the East Coast’s telecommunications.

With about two dozen reporters on the streets or working telephones, we pulled together enough information to write four stories about the fire and its impact for the next day’s paper. One of those stories, on the tunnel’s history, noted that fire officials had acknowledged more than 15 years ago that they worried about the risks of shipping hazardous materials underneath the city by rail. “The problem would be just getting in there to fight the fire,” a federal transportation safety official had said. “If you had an explosion, fire could shoot out both ends like a bazooka.”

Reporting on a Disaster Leads to New Investigations

There were no explosions, but the heat inside the tunnel soared to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At least 22 people, including two firefighters with chest pains, were treated at hospitals, most for respiratory or eye irritation. But officials assured Dewar, our environment reporter, that air monitors had not detected any toxic fumes emanating from the tunnel.

As the underground fire continued to burn out of control into the night, though, we still didn’t know exactly what chemicals the train had been hauling. Our police reporter on the scene—more used to dealing with shootings than chemistry—managed to get a verbal rundown from officials in the emergency command post, but the chemical names he called in were garbled. With the deadline looming, I finally got a spokesman for the railroad on the phone and convinced him to read the train’s manifest to me—enabling us to report that nine of the 60 rail cars carried chemicals. We ran a box in the next day’s paper listing the six different compounds and their potential dangers to people. (Instead of carrying hydrofluoric acid, the train had two tankers full of fluorosilicic acid—often added to drinking water supplies to prevent tooth decay. This substance can still be extremely toxic, causing severe burns if it is inhaled or touches skin.)

With no information that toxic chemicals were leaking or burning that first night, our stories the next morning skirted the issue. None of the headlines, or subheads, talked about threats to the public, except to characterize the train’s cargo as “toxic” and “dangerous.” The top of the main story focused on the disruption caused by the fire and water-main break before identifying the chemicals on the train and briefly mentioning what harm they could do. A state environmental official was quoted, saying that air monitors at both ends of the tunnel had picked up no whiffs of either acid or other “compounds of concern.”

The final crisis of the night was an internal one. Around 11 p.m., we learned that the water-main break had deprived our printing plant of water needed to run the presses. What’s more, police roadblocks were preventing pressmen from getting to work. Our managing editor, Tony Barbieri, telephoned Mayor Martin O’Malley and the city’s public works director, appealing for help. “It was very touch and go,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, here’s the biggest story in Baltimore in 10 years, and we’re not going to be able to publish.” Water pressure was restored just in time, and the pressmen were allowed past the roadblocks to get the paper out.

The fire raged on for four more days, and our reporters maintained a round-the-clock vigil outside the tunnel while we published three or four stories a day on the struggle to control the blaze. In the end, although one car of chemicals was consumed by flames and another tanker full of hydrochloric acid leaked, though downtown traffic and commerce were disrupted, no one was killed or disabled by the fire. Many breathed a sigh of relief, saying it could have been much worse.

On the fire’s second day, we reported that the train that had derailed and caught fire was just one of countless shipments of hazardous materials that pass unheralded through the city by rail. After the crisis was past, we found that the city’s plan for dealing with chemical leaks and fires, though mandated by federal law, was woefully inadequate; for example, it didn’t even mention the underground rail tunnels. Fire officials, who had refused to let us see the plan during the five-day emergency, acknowledged afterward that they had never consulted it.

Our reporting on the cleanup from the tunnel fire, and the search for clues to what caused it, continued through the rest of the summer. There were two sequels to the train fire—a small chemical fire in a pharmaceutical factory that forced nearby residents to evacuate and an underground explosion of chemicals that had apparently leaked into sewers from the derailed train weeks before. We began looking into the potential risks to the community from the many hazardous chemicals that are stored and used at factories and water and sewage plants around the Baltimore area. Our environment reporter, Heather Dewer, had proposed months earlier writing about the “worst-case” chemical accident scenarios on file with the government. But until this disaster happened, this important story was not one we’d devoted much time or space to telling.

Before we could get that story into the newspaper, though, September 11 raised new fears about terrorists targeting chemical plants and shipments. Dewer completely overhauled her lengthy investigative piece to focus on those threats as well as the far more likely dangers from accidents. By then, however, many in the public were more concerned about giving terrorists ideas than about being warned of hazards they lived with. Her two-page package and bulls-eye map of chemical danger zones that appeared in the paper in October 2001 elicited complaints as well as praise, even though we withheld significant details about the nature and locations of the chemicals stockpiled in our area.

“After September 11, Headlines About Air Quality Were Everywhere”
– Dan Fagin
The blanket coverage we’d given our city’s tunnel fire proved to be a good newsroom rehearsal for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks when we dispatched teams of reporters to New York and Washington to respond to those disasters. Again, though, we gave little thought to the environmental health hazards reporters might face at Ground Zero—concerns that firefighters and emergency workers have since raised.

Creating Protections at the Newspaper

Since those twin disasters, the paper’s top editors have devised a plan for publishing in the event the downtown newsroom or our remote printing plant are unusable, whether because of fire, flooding or some act of terrorism. But we have yet to draft a similar blueprint for covering chemical emergencies, in part because the daily drumbeat of news has denied us the luxury of time to reflect on it. Also, it would be very difficult to put on paper all the different disaster scenarios that might unfold or to envision how we would cover each one.

Perhaps the best preparation for covering unexpected—but not unanticipated—environmental calamities like the train fire is to have people on staff, either environment beat reporters or research librarians, who know the issues and how to get technical information quickly. Beyond that, it helps to have good relationships with scientists at the local colleges and universities, whom you can consult for quickie courses on chemistry and toxicology, among other things.

Meanwhile, Sandy Banisky, our metro editor, vows to get those gas masks, just in case disaster strikes here again.

Timothy heeler handles The (Baltimore) Sun’s environmental coverage as an editor supervising the paper’s science, medicine and other specialty beats. He spent a decade covering the environment during 16 years as a reporter at The Sun and its now-retired afternoon counterpart, The Evening Sun. The Sun’s coverage of the train tunnel fire earned the Society of Environmental Journalists’ first annual award for outstanding deadline print reporting, given in October 2002.

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