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CSX: Md. train explosion caused by chemical cargo

Thursday - 5/30/2013, 11:00am  ET

A fire burns at the site of a CSX freight train derailment, Tuesday, May 28, 2013, in Rosedale, Md., where fire officials say the train crashed into a trash truck, causing an explosion that rattled homes at least a half-mile away and collapsed nearby buildings, setting them on fire. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

BEN NUCKOLS and DAVID DISHNEAU
Associated Press

ROSEDALE, Md. (AP) -- Train operator CSX Transportation on Wednesday pointed to a hazardous chemical in a rail car as the source of an explosion on a derailed train near Baltimore that sparked a fire, rattled homes and damaged buildings. A company spokesman said officials still weren't sure what caused the sodium chlorate to explode in the first place, but it ignited another chemical in a second car.

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were examining evidence on the scene and reviewing train video that shows the collision with a garbage truck that led to the derailment. The fire that followed sent a plume of black and gray smoke into the air that could be seen for miles.

On Wednesday afternoon, workers were using heavy cranes to move the damaged rail cars, and an excavator was picking up broken pieces of track. The mangled truck lay on its side on the side of the railroad tracks, its contents littering the ground. Next to the track, the corrugated metal walls of a warehouse were bent and warped.

Sumwalt said at a news conference Wednesday that the freight train was traveling 49 mph and that the engineer blew a whistle three times before it collided with the truck around 2 p.m. Tuesday. The whistle on the locomotive was first blown 17 seconds before the collision, Sumwalt said, and it was sounding at the moment of impact.

Surveillance video and a camera mounted on the locomotive show that the garbage truck drove onto the tracks 3 seconds before it was struck. The truck was moving when the train collided with its right rear axle, officials said.

The train driver applied the emergency brakes, and the locomotive came to rest nearly a mile from the collision site, Sumwalt said. Smoke was visible 33 seconds after the collision, and flames were seen 10 seconds after that. But it was more than 5 minutes after the collision that the explosion occurred.

There is dense foliage on either side of the crossing, which is marked with signs but no flashing lights or moving barriers. Sumwalt said investigators would be looking into whether there were any obstructions that limited visibility for drivers using the crossing.

Of the 45 cars on the train, 14 were loaded and 31 were empty. Four were carrying hazardous materials, and of those, three derailed, Sumwalt said.

The chemical that first exploded, sodium chlorate, is highly volatile. The sodium chlorate was in powder form and was being hauled in a covered hopper car. Another chemical burned for nearly 10 hours after the crash.

CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the sodium chlorate was in a derailed car near the front of the train; the blast ignited terephthalic acid in another derailed car.

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

Another chemist, Darlene Lyudmirskiy, of Spectrum Chemical Manufacturing Corp. in Gardena, Calif., said such a mixture would be unstable and wouldn't need even a spark to cause a reaction.

"If it's not compatible, anything could set it off," she said.

Sease said Wednesday that one of the cars that derailed was empty but might have contained residue of fluorosilicic acid. Fluorosilicic acid, a liquid, is a hazardous material that can produce toxic gases and vapors, according to a National Institutes of Health website. It is put in drinking water to prevent tooth decay and is used to preserve wood, harden ceramic and masonry, and treat animal hides, according to the NIH.

The railroad said in a news release Wednesday that it continues to work with state and federal environmental officials to "clean up products released in the derailment." The company said it is conducting air, water and soil sampling and sharing that information with officials.

Among the buildings that sustained the most damage was a training facility for a plumbers and steamfitters union a few hundred yards away from the explosion site. Only a handful of employees were in the building at the time of the blast, and all but one rushed outside to see what had happened. They heard the crash first, followed by the derailment, then saw a plume of smoke.

Al Clinedinst, the training director for the facility, said he and a colleague drove closer to the derailment scene before the explosion to see if they could help, but they were turned back by the overwhelming heat.

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