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Published May 29, 2013, 02:25 PM

CSX: Maryland train explosion caused by chemical cargo

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.

By: BEN NUCKOLS,Associated Press, 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.

Authorities are continuing to look into the cause. Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were examining evidence on the scene and reviewing train video that might show the collision with a garbage truck that set off the incident. But he said they had not reached any conclusions.

CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the sodium chlorate in a derailed car near the front of the train exploded, igniting 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.

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.

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.

"It was paint-bubbling hot," he said.

Then the explosion shook their truck.

"The blast, the force, it took the wheel out of my hands," Clinedinst said. "It really took a shot."

Sumwalt said late Tuesday that the collision occurred at a private crossing where the only marking was a stop sign. He said it wasn't clear why the truck was crossing the tracks or whether it was authorized to be there.

The truck driver, 50-year-old John J. Alban Jr., remained in serious condition Wednesday at Shock Trauma in Baltimore, a hospital spokeswoman said. Two CSX workers aboard weren't hurt.

In addition to the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the crash of the 45-car train, which was en route from Selkirk, N.Y., to Waycross, Ga.

Baltimore County spokeswoman Elise Armacost said it wasn't clear whether the truck driver would face charges.

Baltimore County's Public Safety Department said that county, city and CSX hazmat experts did not believe the burning chemicals would produce toxic inhalants. But a National Institutes of Health website says oxidizers such as sodium chlorate may produce irritating, corrosive and/or toxic gases when burned.

Toxic inhalation hazards are a worry when trains carrying hazardous materials derail. They include chemicals such as chlorine, which killed nine people after a derailment of a Norfolk Southern train caused a release of the toxic gas in South Carolina in 2005.

Following a November 2007 derailment involving a freight train carrying hazardous materials near Baltimore's Camden Yards, CSX agreed the following year to provide Maryland officials with real-time information on shipments of toxic inhalation hazards.

The fire was called under control late Tuesday just before midnight, and the fire department remained on scene only in a supporting role.

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