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Baltimore and tunnel operator criticised over toxic blaze

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AN INADEQUATE disaster plan weakened efforts to fi ght a massive fi re in Baltimore's Howard Street rail tunnel in 2001, United States safety offiials said last week.

Lack of information about the location of vital fire fi ghter access points also undermined efforts to tackle the blaze, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

It made the criticisms last week in separate letters to the City of Baltimore and train operator CSX, which also owns the tunnel.

Fire broke out in the 2.72km tunnel on 18 July 2001 when 11 cars in a 101m long 60 car CSX freight train derailed. NTSB believes an obstruction on the track caused the derailment, although the exact cause of the accident has not been determined.

The derailment ruptured a tanker of flammable tripropylene, igniting its contents.

The fl ames from this caused two other cars containing hydrochloric acid and one containing the di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate plasticiser also to ignite.

The resulting fire created heat, smoke and fumes which limited access to the tunnel for several days. In the hours after the accident a 1.25m diameter water main above the tunnel burst, fl ooding it with millions of litres of water.

At the time, the city's fi re department said the need for a specifi c disaster plan for the tunnel had been discounted during its design. It said the possibility of an intense fire involving derailment, hazardous materials and a water main burst had been considered 'too far fetched' (NCE 26 July 2001).

NTSB's letter to Baltimore Mayor Michael O'Malley urged him to include a specific tunnel disaster plan in the city's Hazardous Materials Action Plan document.

'Although the plan had detailed infrastructure response information on virtually all the industrial facilities within the city of Baltimore, it did not have any information on the Howard Street tunnel, which could easily present situations as dangerous as some of the industrial facilities that are addressed in the plan, ' says the letter.

Baltimore's official solicitor Ralph Tyler said the city was reexamining its disaster plans but that much of the responsibility for the fire lay with CSX.

'Things could have been better planned, but it is not accurate to say that the city was unprepared, ' he said.

NTSB also criticised CSX for failing to keep records of maintenance and repairs to the tunnel.

'Documentation and information regarding construction and other alterations to the infrastructure near the Howard Street tunnel are unreliable and the exchange of such information between CSX and the city of Baltimore is inadequate, ' says the letter to CSX president Michael Ward.

'We are going to go back and look at the information we had available to see whether the criticism is something to address, ' said a CSX spokesman.

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