Baltimore explosion caused by train derailment

A day after the derailment, train cars remain on their side near the tracks. Photo: Brad Bell

(AP/ABC7) -{}Authorities are attributing the explosion on a derailed freight train near Baltimore to the chemical cargo in one of the cars.

CSX Transportation Co. spokesman Gary Sease said Wednesday that sodium chlorate in a car that derailed Tuesday in Rosedale exploded.

He says the explosion ignited another chemical, terephthlaic acid, from a second derailed car.

Sodium chlorate is used mainly as a bleaching agent in paper production. Oklahoma State University chemist Nick Materer says it could make for potentially explosive mixture when combined with an incompatible material such as spilled fuel.

National Transportation Safety Board Member Robert Sumwalt says investigators are reviewing video from the lead locomotive that may show the collision and evidence on the scene, but they haven't yet drawn any conclusions.

Authorities say a dozen or so rail cars - at least one carrying hazardous materials - went off the tracks around 2 p.m. Tuesday in Rosedale, Md., a suburb east of Baltimore. Several rail cars caught fire, sending a plume of black and gray smoke into the air that could be seen for miles, and an explosion rattled homes at least a half-mile away.

Baltimore County officials say the burning rail cars are not a public health threat.{}

The truck driver, 50-year-old John J. Alban Jr.,{}remains in serious condition. Alban is a retired firefighter with the Baltimore County Fire Department. Two CSX workers aboard weren't hurt.{}Large Area around the tracks remains closed to traffic.

“For a minute there he wasn’t moving and then my boyfriend went down there to help him,” says Erica Hagan of Rosedale, who was one of the first civilians to get near Alban. “I started to cry. I started to cry.”

James Whitlock works at a plumbers union training facility about 150 yards from the train wreck. His windows blew in, the ceiling fell. A door deep inside the office is blown off its hinges. It looks like earthquake damage.

Whitlock says the only reason nobody here got hurt is that like all those who took videos they went out to watch the fire burn.

“We're just fortunate that everybody got out safe,” he says. “Everybody was outside when the glass blew in.”

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.

Bill Johnson’s home is nearly a half-mile away. One of the windows on the side of his home shattered.

“So when I came home I had broken glass in the house, just one side of it, so it does do damage,” he says.

The face of one warehouse near the train tracks blew off.

“I’m shaking still I mean, that’s how horrifying it was,” says Roy Fell of Rosedale.

Fell says he was driving nearby when the explosion happened. He says it was so powerful it sent his car airborne.

“Like a bomb, just lifted my car off and just dropped it right back down,” he says.

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.

Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman said sodium chlorate 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.

Below, raw video from the Associated Press shows the explosion.

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