A freight train smacked into a truck carrying garbage and careened off the tracks in Rosedale Tuesday afternoon, triggering an explosion felt throughout the region and sending up a plume of black smoke visible for miles.
Authorities identified the driver of the truck as John Alban Jr., a retired Baltimore County firefighter who owns a waste collection company near the scene of the crash. The Essex man was listed in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center Tuesday night, a hospital spokeswoman said. No other serious injuries were reported.
Officials shut down surrounding roads for several hours, slowing traffic through the region. The roads were reopened by Tuesday night, and a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration said the morning commute should not be affected.
Michael “Vince” Brown, the operations manager at a business near the crash site, was sitting in his office at about 2 p.m. Tuesday when it began to “rumble and shake.”
“I screamed at my employees, ‘Everyone get in their cars and get out of here now,’” Brown said. “We were on Lake Drive, and I asked if everyone was there, and as soon as I said that, the train blew up. It blew me against my car.”
The two workers aboard the two-locomotive, 45-car train — the engineer and a conductor — were not seriously injured, said Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX Corp. Authorities said 15 cars were involved.
County officials said two rail cars that were carrying chemicals used to make plastic caught fire. Sease said at least one car that might have been involved in the derailment contained sodium chlorate, classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a hazardous material.
The crash occurred near the 7500 block of Lake Drive in an industrial section of Rosedale. Authorities did not order evacuations, but asked residents in 70 homes to the west of the crash site to leave their homes voluntarily and provided rides to shelters, Fire Chief John J. Hohman said.
“The evacuation would be much more significant if there were toxic chemicals” on fire, Hohman said as firefighters trained a mix of water and foam on the blaze. The smoke was visible from downtown Baltimore into the evening.
Sease said four of the cars potentially involved contained terephthalic acid, which is used in the production of plastics. It is not listed by the Department of Transportation as a hazardous material. Sease said another car might have contained traces of the hazardous material fluorosilicic acid.
The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said its initial assessment was that the risk to the general public is low. A spokeswoman said neither terephthalic acid and sodium chlorate should produce an imminent hazard to the public, and reports of preliminary monitoring from the site did not indicate the presence of highly toxic chemicals.
Health officials advised residents to avoid direct exposure to smoke.
CSX set up a “community outreach center” at a nearby motel to assist those displaced by the derailment. Sease encouraged anyone requiring assistance to go to the Harbour Meeting Room at the Country Inn & Suites at 8825 Yellow Brick Road in Rosedale.
Capt. Bruce Schultz, a spokesman for the county fire department, said late Tuesday that the fire was "contained, but not under control."
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The fire was contained to two cars on the train, and the department expected that firefighters would continue to fight it into the night.
The train, which was traveling from Selkirk, N.Y., to Waycross, Ga., did not strike any buildings, but the force of the crash damaged several structures close by and blew out windows at businesses a mile away.
Brown, the operations manager at Baltimore Windustrial, said a picture of his children and his fiancee fell off his desk, and the building felt as if it was about to collapse. He ran to the front door and found it was too hot to touch.
Outside, he saw an overturned blue tank and flames shooting into the air. He realized workers had to go.
Michael M. Rutkowski, owner of Baltimore Windustrial, which distributes valve pipe fittings, said the building was “completely demolished.”
Witnesses began posting images and video to social media. Eric Beverly, 22, said he was driving through from Golden Ring Mall when he saw the smoke and drove closer to record video.
When the explosion occurred, Beverly said, he could feel intense heat inside his vehicle.
“We had no idea it was going to blow up,” Beverly said. “I had my son in the car with me, and my thinking was basically to get away. … I thought it was going to explode even more.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said a team of 15 rail and hazmat investigators would spend four to seven days investigating all aspects of the incident.
The crash took place at private grade crossing where the only safety mechanism was a sign notifying motorists to stop, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB, said at a news conference Tuesday night.
Investigators will be able to determine the speed the train’s speed, and camera on a front locomotive should show where the truck was at the time of the crash, Sumwalt said.
Derailments are the most common type of train accident in Maryland, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis. Of the recorded 50 accidents recorded in the state in 2011 and 2012, 26 were derailments.
CSX trains collide with vehicles at Maryland intersections roughly a dozen times each year, the data show.
Two teenage college students were killed in downtown Ellicott City last August when a train carrying coal derailed and buried them in debris. A preliminary report by the NTSB suggested that investigators were focused on track conditions; a final report has not been issued. NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said the formal investigation can take between 12 and 18 months to complete.
After the crash Tuesday, authorities shut down U.S. 40 westbound at Rosedale Road, and eastbound at 64th Street. The Interstate 95, I-895 and I-695 ramps to U.S.40 were closed.
Authorities said they did not know what caused the crash. An undated aerial image of the area from Google Earth shows an open stretch of track that connects the industrial park with a property that appeared to be full of roll-off Dumpsters.
Alban’s business was listed in the 1000 block of 68th Street.
William Stump, treasurer of the Hyde Park Fire Co., said Alban has volunteered with the company for about 25 years. Stump said he had been in contact with Alban’s family.
“We heard he’s doing pretty good,” Stump said.
Traffic was jammed on Pulaski Highway as emergency trucks and responders raced to the fire. All along the way, people stood outside and stared at the billowing plume of smoke.
Residents going home from work were not being allowed into the neighborhood around the fire.
The smell of acrid smoke filled the area as armies of fire trucks and paramedics arrived. Officers blocked the path of a woman in a gold Ford Explorer. She yelled, “I'm just trying to get my kid”; they rerouted her.
The front window at the Atlantic Tire shop on Pulaski Highway was a gaping hole, and employees stood outside, marveling at the plumes. They said they watched garage light bulbs explode.
“Definitely catches you off guard,” employee Matt Ashline said. “I want to get over there.”
Nearly 300 students at Greater Grace Church on Moravia Park Road sheltered in place after the explosion.
Mike Veader, the church's head of security, said he was standing in the parking lot reporting the plume of smoke when the explosion occurred.
“The ball of fire looked kind of like the one in Texas, the same thing,” he said. “It went up probably 300 feet.”
Explosions at a fertilizer plant last month in West, Texas, left 15 dead.
Scores of people on Twitter reported feeling a “shock wave” as far away as Canton, Pasadena and Bel Air. Small business owner Robert D. Wray wrote that it shook the windows on his condo in Fells Point.
A Patterson Park resident wrote: “Dogs and I all jumped. Neighbor said her curtains blew in!”
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Erin Cox, Michael Dresser, Jon Meoli and Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.
Notable Md. rail accidents
August 2012: Two teenagers sitting beside the tracks in Ellicott City were killed when a CSX train loaded with coal derailed and buried them in coal.
March 2010: Eight of the 60 cars on a CSX freight train derailed alongside Patapsco State Park, spilling plastic pellets and debris that took more than a month to clean up. No one was hurt.
December 2006: 100 homes near the border of Carroll and Howard counties were evacuated when a tanker carrying liquid ammonia derailed.
July 2002: 101 people were injured — at least six seriously — when an Amtrak passenger train en route to Washington derailed in Montgomery County.
July 2001: Sixty cars, some carrying toxic chemicals, derailed inside the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore, igniting an inferno that burned for days and stopped nearly all north-south freight traffic on the East Coast for almost a week. No one was killed or injured.
January 2000: A 15-year-old boy in Garrett County was killed when a train derailed and crashed through his home.