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Charmed Life

Rail Disaster

Sam Holden

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 3/12/2003

Around midnight on Feb. 17, the phone rang at Steve Johnson's apartment in Mount Vernon. As he'd just gone to bed and turned out the lights, Johnson was tempted not to answer, but he did. Good thing: It was ADT Security Services, calling to tell him that something had set off the sprinkler system at the B&O Railroad Museum. Johnson, the museum's director of facilities and safety, notified his supervisor, then suited up and hurried out into the midst of last month's record-breaking snowstorm. Nearly two feet of snow was already on the ground, slowing his hike to a neighborhood garage.

The white stuff was billowing down on Baltimore, but Johnson's Subaru handled the road conditions as far as Lombard Street, where his way was blocked by a snow-swamped police cruiser. The cops turned him back, so Johnson drove around the block and went the wrong way up deserted Pratt Street, unlocked the big wrought-iron gates, and plowed into the virgin snow of the museum parking lot. Everything looked normal from the street, but when Johnson got to the roundhouse, where the museum's core collection of railroad stock is displayed, he could see that two separate sections of the roof had fallen in. The roundhouse floor was awash with four inches of water from the ruptured sprinkler main, and Johnson smelled gas.

"My first instinct was to get the water and gas turned off," he recalls, but the power was out in the old boiler room that houses the controls. He hurried out to his car, grabbed a flashlight, and slogged back inside to finish the job. At that point, he was the only person aware of what had happened--and it was, in fact, still happening. Johnson says the full emotional impact didn't hit him until the following evening, when he sat down to write a first-person account of his adventure.

Courtney B. Wilson, the museum's director, credits Johnson with "a rather heroic act . . . dangerous to his own life, considering it was only a small section of the roof that had collapsed at that point." Wilson himself arrived later in the wee hours of the morning. He relieved Johnson (who Wilson says was "soaking wet"), then waited in his SUV by the main gates to deal with any emergency personnel or media people who might come by. Sometime shortly after, another section of the roof gave way under the snow. By daylight, the entire southern half of the roundhouse's slate-covered roof had collapsed.

It fell to Wilson to rally the troops in the face of what was obviously a catastrophic event, even though the full monetary damage has yet to be assessed. "We pulled the staff together and said, 'OK, there's shock, there's tears, and now there's work to be done.' The response was tremendous. . . . Not that it doesn't hurt every time you look at it."

The first task, before individual objects can be examined, is the stabilization of the half-wrecked roof and compromised walls. The 119-year-old roundhouse, formerly a B&O passenger-car repair shop, is itself a historic treasure. Right now, however, it's considered so risky that all visitors, including reporters and photographers, are required to wear hard hats and stay at least 40 feet away from the building.

As to the collection of rolling stock, Wilson says, "I can pretty confidently state that it appears as if nothing was destroyed beyond restoration, but the severity of damage on some pieces is great." Smiling, he adds, "A locomotive's a tough bird." Far more vulnerable than the ironclad engines are rare wooden passenger cars from the 19th century. From the one view of the interior that's available to reporters, through a brick archway on the southwest side, it's easy to see the warped body of a fine yellow rail car, half-draped with a blue plastic tarp. Behind this wreckage, huge vertical slabs of the roof stand where they fell, shingles intact.

One bitter consequence of the collapse is that the museum has had to cancel this summer's Fair of the Iron Horse 175, a festival celebrating the 175-year history of American railroading. That history, of course, began right here in southwest Baltimore, about half a mile west of the museum, where the B&O's first spike was driven in 1828. Prior to Feb. 17, the museum had sold 8,000 tickets to the fair, and corporate sponsors had pledged heavily. The event would have been a huge boost not only to the museum but also to the city, at a time when both tourist dollars and municipal self-esteem are desperately craved.

Wilson and his colleagues take some solace from the letters, e-mails, and donations that have poured in from rail fans and anguished museum officials all over the planet. "This was the collapse heard 'round the world," Wilson quips, noting that the museum has received communications from Japan, Germany, England, Canada, and Latin America.

The global outpouring of support and sympathy is a strong indication of the museum's significance. We Baltimoreans tend to take the place for granted, easily forgetting that the now-fading railroad industry--the brainchild of a small band of city fathers--built and unified the entire country, not to mention our city and region. Perhaps last month's calamity, and the long process of recovery, will bring the shrine some sustained local attention. Maybe the corporate sponsors of the canceled fair, and those 8,000 ticket-holders, will see fit to leave their money in the museum's hands, to begin the staggering chore of restoration. (The museum, by the way, is a freestanding nonprofit institution, neither a city property nor a stepchild of CSX Corp., the B&O's corporate heir. That means donations are tax-deductible--and indispensible.)

One last comment from Wilson, saying what he really must say, given the circumstance: "There's an opportunity to make [the museum] greater," he says. "And we have to look at those possibilities."

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