Howard Street Tunnel Fire

On July 18, 2001, the Baltimore City Fire Department and hazmat team faced one of their largest and most challenging hazmat/fire incidents on record. At approximately 3:08 p.m., 11 cars of a 60-car CSX train derailed while passing through the 1.7 mile Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. Eight tank cars on the train contained hazardous materials, and four of those cars derailed. The derailed tank cars contained tripropylene, a flammable liquid, hydrochloric acid, and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a plasticizer and environmentally hazardous substance. The leaking tripropylene caught fire and burned along with other combustible cargo in other railcars. Civil defense sirens sounded through the city; major highways into Baltimore were closed along with boat traffic in the inner harbor. Public Works Department representatives indicated that this was the first time the sirens had been used that was not a drill or test. (The sirens are tested every Monday at 1:00.)

Shelter in place orders were issued for downtown buildings, although ignored by the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus. Traffic was gridlocked on city streets, people waited for buses that could not get to them, light rail service was restricted because of the proximity to the incident scene, and the Metro subway was closed for a period of time to make sure smoke had not entered the tubes. The second game of an Orioles day-night double header was canceled, downtown stores were closed, and night classes at the University of Baltimore were canceled. Five alarms of fire equipment and approximately 125 firefighters responded to the incident which lasted until July 23rd. Firefighters and hazmat personnel had a difficult time getting to the site of the derailment because of the leaking chemicals, the thick black smoke from the fire, and the fact the incident occurred inside the tunnel. The derailment location was approximately 3/4 of a mile into the tunnel. The situation was further complicated by a 40 inch water main brake in Howard Street above the fire and a resulting power outage that affected approximately 1,200 residents. Twenty-two people were injured including two firefighters who experienced chest pains. Ironically, it was scheduled to be Firefighter Appreciation Day 2001 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards located just a few hundred feet from the opening to the tunnel (Firehouse Magazine).

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