Jul 30, 2001
On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 18, a 60-car-long CSX freight train derailed and caught fire in a tunnel running under downtown Baltimore. The two-man train crew notified CSX officials of the fire immediately after escaping from the tunnel. But CSX officials didn't notify the fire department until an hour later. By that time, the fire was well on the way to creating one of the biggest emergencies the city has ever faced.
Many of the train cars were loaded with flammable materials. But the biggest threat came from tanker cars loaded with hydrochloric acid, fluorosilicic acid, glacial acetic acid and three other chemcials – all capable of producing exceedingly toxic smoke and fumes.
The fire quickly created a nightmare. The toxic smoke and heat pouring out of both ends of the tunnel made it impossible for regular city firefighters to do anything effective to battle the blaze. Even a special chemical firefighting unit and hazardous materials units initially made almost no headway. Fire officials warned of the possibility that the chemical tanker cars could explode sending poisonous smoke and fumes throughout the entire downtown area.
In this potentially disastrous situation, it’s obvious what needed to be done. The whole downtown area should have been evacuated immediately. Given the potential for a traffic jam, exit routes should have been designated and pickup points set up for those needing public transportation. Extra buses should have been put in service to get people out.
Was it done? No! Instead everyone was left to fend for themselves in a highly dangerous and chaotic situation.
As rush hour hit, cars were allowed to continue entering the downtown area even while tens of thousands of workers were trying to leave. Grid lock quickly trapped people in autos. Bus, subway and light rail riders were left stranded – while toxic smoke poured out of both ends of the tunnel.
Three hours after the fire started, a 40-inch water main near the tunnel burst, apparently from the heat. Streets flooded and water pressure was lost in the area. Telephone service went out in several buildings.
Maybe public officials were taken by surprise – maybe they don’t respond well to emergencies! But that doesn’t explain their actions in the days that followed.
The fire burned for four days before all the railroad cars were finally pulled out of the tunnel and all the flames extinguished. On Thursday and Friday, with the fire at its height, public officials issued no order to close all offices, stores, hotels and restaurants. They certainly didn’t tell workers they could stay home with pay at the expense of CSX. They let business go on as usual – and business as usual puts profit first. Even city and state officials expected workers in their buildings to show up in the middle of this dangerous situation. Many workers were sickened and had to go back home. And the potential for an explosion and much more dangerous situation was always there.
And what now – has this fire at least forced a few changes?
Not at all. Within hours after the fire was put out, some track repairs were made, a quick inspection of the tunnel was done and CSX and government officials pronounced it safe for a resumption of train traffic. Normal operations resumed less than two days after the last flames were extinguished. CSX officials announced they had no intention of halting the shipment of toxic chemicals through the tunnel.
This should come as no surprise. Over 15 years ago, officials admitted the dangers of shipping flammable gases, toxic chemicals and occasionally explosives through this very tunnel, yet nothing was done then either. In 1985, a federal transportation safety official said that if there was a fire in the tunnel, “The problem would be just getting in there to fight the fire... If you had an explosion, fire could shoot out both ends like a bazooka.”
But the role of public officials in this capitalist society is not to protect the health and safety of the people they supposedly serve. It’s to protect the profits of the big corporations they really serve. As the fire showed, they do that quite well.