The train went off the tracks at about 2 p.m. in Rosedale, a Baltimore eastern suburb. Hazmat teams were on the scene, but Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman said at a news conference that no toxic inhalants were burning and officials did not order an evacuation. The truck driver was taken to the hospital in serious condition and two CSX workers aboard weren’t hurt, fire officials said.
Dale Walston said he lives about a half-mile away and that he thought he could smell chemicals.
“It shook my house pretty violently and knocked things off the shelves,” he said in an email to The Associated Press.
Even an hour after the blast, the thick plume of black smoke drifted across the Baltimore city line and covered the eastern part of the city. The face of one warehouse near the train tracks blew off.
CSX spokesman Gary Sease said in an email that sodium chlorate is on one of the trains, which the Department of Transportation classifies as a hazardous material. However, Hohman said the chemical is not in one of the cars that was still burning into the evening. The bleaching agent is used in making paper.
Earlier, fire officials had said buildings had collapsed, but Hohman modified that to say two warehouses were heavily damaged by the explosion and other buildings were harmed, but none collapsed.
An Amtrak spokeswoman said its Northeast Corridor service is not being affected.
Kevin Lindemann, 29, a salesman for industrial pipe supplier Baltimore Windustrial near the tracks, said he and about 10 co-workers felt the ground shake, ran to a window and saw several cars on their sides and flames he estimated were 50 feet high.
“You could feel the heat as soon as you walked out the door,” Lindemann said.
“We kind of panicked pretty quick,” he said. “We didn’t wait around to see what was happening. So as soon as we saw the flames I took a quick picture and got in my truck and drove away. I wasn’t sticking around for the explosion.”
Everyone left the building and drove several blocks away. Then they heard the explosion, five to 10 minutes after the derailment, he said.
“Even like three blocks away, it was loud. I mean, it just about took you to your knees,” Lindemann said.
Hohman said firefighters had considered letting the blazes burn out but later decided to hose them down and as they were, the smoke became a lighter color. Firefighters were informing residents of about 70 nearby homes that they could leave if they choose and shelter will be provided. However, no one was being forced to evacuate.
Photos showed at least a dozen train cars off the tracks including at least one tanker car. Sease said four of the cars believed derailed carried terephthalic acid, which is used in the production of plastics and polyester, among other things. He said it is not listed as a hazardous material.
One of the cars still burning was carrying terephthalic acid, and another was carrying fluoroacetic acid, Hohman said. Fluoroacetic acid can be used as a pesticide.
A worker at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, Tawan Rai, reached by The Associated Press by phone, said he saw a fire and flames by the railroad tracks at first, then felt a thundering blast that sent smoke pouring into the sky.
“The whole building shook and there was just dust everywhere,” said Rai, adding no windows broke but he was surprised by the intensity of the blast.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were sending teams to investigate.
The derailment is the third serious one this month. In Bridgeport, Conn., on May 17, more than 70 people were injured when a commuter train derailed. The eastbound train from New York City went off the tracks during evening rush hour, came to a stop and was struck about 20 seconds later by a westbound train.
In Rockview, Mo., on Saturday, a cargo train crash injured seven people and destroyed a highway overpass that could take a year to repair.
Despite the high-profile railroad accidents in recent years, the overall number of such crashes has been declining industry wide and for CSX over the past decade.
Last year was the safest year on record for the railroad industry, according to the railroad administration. All train accidents are down 43 percent since 2003, and derailments are down 40 percent over the same period, according to data provided by the administration. Freight train derailments specifically are also down 40 percent.
In each of the past five years, CSX has reported more than 100 deaths in accidents and incidents involving the railroad.
The Federal Railroad Administration says CSX reported 104 deaths in 2012, down from 122 in 2011 and 117 in 2010. The railroad reported 102 deaths in 2009 and 122 in 2008.
CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., operates over 21,000 miles of track in 23 eastern states and two Canadian provinces.
CSX shares traded higher Tuesday before the derailment was reported. The shares closed down 20 cents at $25.30.
Bertha Pressley and her husband Tom Brown said their townhome in Middle River, about 3 miles away, shook and they initially feared a bomb or natural disaster.
“We felt that big boom,” Brown said. “I felt the house shake.”