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Abstract: In the late afternoon of a hot day in July, 2001, an accident beneath the streets of Baltimore threatened to turn into a disaster. A freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed and caught fire inside a tunnel that ran beneath one of the city's main streets. Not only did the tunnel accident block the major north-south train route for the eastern United States, it also released clouds of possibly toxic vapors into downtown streets. Incredibly, the first accident was followed by a second one, a break in a major water main, in exactly the same area, into which cascaded hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. It was a combination which a city official would call everyone's worst nightmare. This case describes blow-by-blow and meeting-by-meeting the public emergency response to the tunnel fire and its aftermath. It details how a dozen different jurisdictions including city, state and federal agencies had to find ways to coordinate their response in the absence of established procedures for dealing with a situation which had never been specifically contemplated. Among the themes explored in this crisis management case is the role of the local chief executive (Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley), the conflicts and cooperation amongst agencies (including and especially fire and public works), and, more broadly, the question of how a series of crucial tactical decisions must be made in the absence of complete information (such as the level of toxic hazard).
Learning Objective: Although this case portrays a city responding to an accident, the dynamics of the response relate to those that might be faced in the event of a terrorist attack and the case can be used in considering such possibilities and the role of public safety first-responders in confronting them.