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The Nose

Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)

CP Newzgraphix
The City Paper Digi-Camô
The City Paper Digi-Camô

Posted 7/25/2001

Ethyl hexyl phthalate. Tripropylene. Fluorosillicic acid. Mysterious words, with polysyllables the Nose can trim to just two: dan-ger.

Danger beneath the city.

And the Nose was right above it, above the danger, in the vanguard of coverage. So you're reading it a week late. Nevertheless: We Were There.

This is why we love our job. We were at our desk, maybe two blocks from the northern terminus of the soon-to-be- famous Howard Street Tunnel, quietly digesting our late lunch of nakji gobdol bi bim bab. It was about 4:45 p.m. when we heard the Authorities drive by, loudly ordering everyone to STAY INDOORS. So we grabbed a notepad, an associate, and the City Paper Digi-Cam and went outdoors.

Owing to the Miss Othmar quality of the authorities' PA, we thought we were heading for a light-rail derailment. But the trams were still running, if slowly, through a haze of smoke seeping up from the Maryland Institute, College of Art dell. Circling the block--through the smoke, readers, through the smoke--we spied the yellow snout of a CSX locomotive, just past the opening of the tunnel.

Then we knew: There was Fire on the Rails. Underground. A freight fire.

Fire trucks were rolling in from all directions. Photographers and videographers, professional and amateur, ringed the scene. The Nose Team snapped pictures. Here is a picture:

Gradually, the cops ran the lenspeople off. We sidled back to the light-rail stop, where the thickening smoke had finally blocked transit. Passengers leaving Oriole Park at Camden Yards were stuck. The Nose Team snapped their picture and asked who won. The Rangers, they said.

Storm clouds thickened overhead. The smoke thickened, flowing up Dolphin Street. We were pretty sure we could feel the danger thickening too.

The stranded O's fans trailed off toward the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, looking for shuttle buses. The Digi-Cam filled its memory, and our associate took it back to CP HQ. The cops started telling the press to move back to the Fifth Regiment Armory. A media-information post was being set up there, they said.

Sirens sounded. More emergency vehicles arrived, flashing and whooping. "They can throw all the fire trucks they want at it," a passing firefighter said, annoyed--till they got one that would go on rails, they would be useless.

Raindrops fell. Drifting toward the Meyerhoff, we stumbled into Baltimore City Fire Department maximum spokesperson Hector Torres. He and another man were looking for a piece of paper and a pen. We obliged. On a spare page of the Nose's notepad, they wrote and revised the public-alert message that would be broadcast when the civil-defense sirens sounded. Torres decided it should say "we are asking you" to STAY INDOORS rather than "we want you" to. They dictated the message into a portable phone.

Latching on to Torres, we ducked under the shelter of the Meyerhoff as the rain became a downpour. There, he briefed a group of three or four reporters, including the Nose: There was a derailment and a fire. It was a five-alarm fire. There were hazardous chemicals on the train, corrosive ones. Roads were closed, the nightcap of the O's double-header cancelled. We watched the smoke, heavy and black, now rising 20 stories, now running low along the ground as the storm winds blew.

Slowly, more info trickled in. The train's bill of lading peeked, dog-eared, out from under a Maryland Department of the Environment employee's rain slicker. Hydrochloric acid was aboard the train. Psychosomatic prickles ran up the Nose's arms. "I smell the acid," someone said, erroneously.

The media crowd at the Meyerhoff was tiny. The rest of the press, someone told Torres, was stuck at the police info post at the Armory. Well, Torres declared, this right here was the fire-department info post. From where we stood, the possibly corrosive smoke appeared to be blowing straight at the Armory. Does the color of the smoke indicate anything? a reporter asked. "It tells me that it's still burning," Torres said.

CSX spokesperson Rob Gould, wearing an orange hard hat, arrived to narrate the events as CSX knew them. "About 3:10 p.m., the train went into what we call 'emergency,'" Gould said. "[There's] nothing magical about the word, it's just railroad-ese."

The Nose wouldn't dream of trying to penetrate the mysterious jargon of railroad-ese. In our language, though, "emergency" damn well is a magical word. The real action of the Great Freight-Tunnel Fire of '01 happened out of sight, in pitch darkness, in Casey Jones' locker. But the idea of it blanketed the city like a blizzard. The gratuitous street closings, Mayor Martin O'Malley's endless TV appearances, the honking assholes stuck in traffic, the children playing dodge ball behind the barricades--each was part of a serious Citywide Event.

As was the Nose, huddled for those precious hours, at the very exclusive center of the dangerous news. Finally, around 6:30 p.m., the first two TV trucks got through the police roadblocks and pulled up at the Meyerhoff. Their satellite towers telescoped skyward. The Nose got the sense that our work there was done. Turning away, we passed a reporter in a pastel suit. "Later on, at 11, they're going to want a package from me," she said to a news teammate.

"A package of what?" he asked.

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