A CSX freight train crashed into a trash truck and derailed Tuesday in a Baltimore suburb and the explosion that followed rattled homes at least a half-mile away, sending a plume of smoke into the air that could be seen for miles, officials and witnesses said.
In the third serious derailment this month, the dozen or so cars, at least one carrying hazardous materials, went off the tracks at about 2 p.m. in Rosedale, a Baltimore eastern suburb. A hazardous materials team responded, but Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a news conference that no toxic inhalants were being released. Officials did not order an evacuation.
By nightfall, the hazmat team had left, meaning there was no more danger posed from the chemicals in the rail car, said Baltimore County police Capt. Bruce Schultz
The truck driver, 50-year-old John J. Alban Jr., was in serious condition Tuesday night, a hospital spokeswoman said. Two CSX workers aboard weren't hurt.
Dale Walston said he lives about a half-mile away and that he thought he could smell chemicals.
"It shook my house pretty violently and knocked things off the shelves," he said in an email to The Associated Press.
The face of one warehouse near the train tracks blew off.
Even hours after the blast, the thick plume of black smoke could be seen for miles and had drifted and covered the eastern part of Baltimore. Later, the smoke that was left had lightened considerably, changing from black to gray, though the fire wasn't yet extinguished as of 9 p.m.
CSX spokesman Gary Sease said in an email that on one of the cars was sodium chlorate, which the Department of Transportation classifies as a hazardous material. However, Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman said the chemical was not in any of the cars that were still burning into the evening. The bleaching agent is used in making paper.
Nick Materer, an Oklahoma State University chemist, said sodium chlorate, when combined with fuel, makes a more volatile mixture. "When you mix them together and add fire, they go boom," he said in a phone interview.
Materer said the chemical is usually shipped as a white powder but it can also be in a liquid solution. Either way, he said, the fumes can irritate the lungs if inhaled.
Exactly what triggered the explosion was being investigated, and Hohman said firefighters told residents of about 70 nearby homes that they could leave if they wanted to and shelter would be provided.
Two warehouses were heavily damaged by the explosion and other buildings were harmed, but none collapsed, as was thought earlier, Hohman said.
An Amtrak spokeswoman said its Northeast Corridor service was not affected.
Kevin Lindemann, 29, a salesman for industrial pipe supplier Baltimore Windustrial near the tracks, said he and about 10 co-workers felt the ground shake, ran to a window and saw several cars on their sides and flames he estimated at 50 feet high.
"You could feel the heat as soon as you walked out the door," Lindemann said.
"We kind of panicked pretty quick," he said. "We didn't wait around to see what was happening. So as soon as we saw the flames I took a quick picture and got in my truck and drove away."
Everyone left the building and drove several blocks away. Then they heard the explosion, five to 10 minutes after the derailment, he said.
"Even like three blocks away, it was loud. I mean, it just about took you to your knees," Lindemann said.
Derailments have done great damage before in Baltimore, a city with countless train tracks. Twelve years ago was the derailment and chemical fire in Baltimore's Howard Street tunnel. Rail cars burned for five days underground in July 2001. Portions of downtown were closed and rail traffic across the U.S. was affected for days.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were sending teams to investigate Tuesday's crash of the 45-car train en route from Selkirk, N.Y., to Waycross, Ga. It contained a variety of products from lumber to printing paper.
Police also planned to investigate the circumstances that led to the track collision, but it was not clear what, if any, charges the truck driver or anyone would face, said county spokeswoman Elise Armacost. Police and fire officials said they were not sure how the truck got on the tracks or even whether it was at a crossing when it was hit.
Photos showed at least a dozen train cars off the tracks, including at least one tanker car. Sease said four of the cars believed derailed carried terephthalic acid, which is used in the production of plastics and polyester, among other things. He said it is not listed as a hazardous material.
One of the cars still burning was carrying that acid, and another was carrying fluoroacetic acid, Hohman said. Fluoroacetic acid is an "extremely toxic" constituent of many poisonous plants that is used to make products that kill rodents, according to the National Institutes of Health website. It produces poisonous gases when burned, according to the NIH.
Materer said the gases contain chlorinated organics. He was less familiar with terephthalic acid but said it, too, contains chlorine.
"It just doesn't sound good," he said.
Hazardous materials moving through Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland was the subject of an agreement a few years ago between the state and CSX. After a freight train with hazardous materials derailed in November 2007 near Camden Yards, CSX agreed to give officials real-time information about potential harmful cargo moving through the state. Railroads had previously guarded such details as proprietary information.
Also hit by a serious derailment this month was Bridgeport, Conn. On May 17, more than 70 people were injured when a commuter train went off the tracks. The eastbound train from New York City derailed during evening rush hour, came to a stop and was struck about 20 seconds later by a westbound train. In Rockview, Mo., on Saturday, a cargo train crash injured seven people and destroyed a highway overpass that could take a year to repair.
Despite the high-profile railroad accidents, the overall number of such crashes has been declining industry wide and for CSX over the past decade.
Last year was the safest year on record for the railroad industry, according to the railroad administration. All train accidents are down 43 percent since 2003, and derailments are down 40 percent over the same period, according to data provided by the administration. Freight train derailments specifically are also down 40 percent.
In each of the past five years, CSX has reported more than 100 deaths in accidents and incidents involving the railroad.
CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., operates over 21,000 miles of track in 23 eastern states and two Canadian provinces.
Its shares traded higher Tuesday before the derailment was reported. The shares closed down 20 cents at $25.30.
Bertha Pressley and her husband Tom Brown said their townhome in Middle River, about 3 miles away, shook and they initially feared a bomb or natural disaster.
"I thought it was terrorism," Pressley said.