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Baltimore rebounding as tunnel fire burns on

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BALTIMORE — Firefighters removed several train cars from a smoky, sweltering railroad tunnel Saturday, significantly lowering the dangers from the days-old acid leak and fire that had crippled the city.

And after postponing three games because of the fire, the Baltimore Orioles announced Saturday that they were returning to nearby Camden Yards for an evening game against the Anaheim Angels.

"It's certainly a much, much brighter picture than it was yesterday," Fire Department spokesman Hector Torres said.

The CSX freight train carrying hydrochloric acid and other hazardous materials derailed inside the tunnel and caught fire on Wednesday, closing several city blocks, blocking highways, and disrupting Internet service across the country by burning fiber optic cables.

Firefighters were forced to enter the tunnel, blocked by tangled rail cars, six at a time through a manhole in the street. The fire's temperature rose to nearly 1,500 degrees and metal on the train's cars glowed orange.

Going down, Fire Lt. Russell "Colt" Carter said, was like entering a chimney.

"If I said I wasn't scared, I'd be lying to you," the 40-year-old Carter said late Friday.

Bad footing, low visibility and extra equipment made matters worse. Firefighters could spend only 15 minutes in the intense heat before climbing out and slumping in the shade.

"Yesterday, I was beyond exhaustion," firefighter Michelle Willoughby, 32, said Friday night. "I felt disoriented and I felt weak."

Emergency workers pulled 22 cars from the tunnel on Saturday, including a charred, ruptured tanker that had carried hydrochloric acid, leaving only 10 inside. Another hydrochloric tanker was removed earlier in the morning.

The ruptured tanker, which leaked at least 5,000 gallons, had been the last car containing hazardous chemicals left in the tunnel.

"We've gone from a serious situation with the hazardous materials to eliminating 95 percent of the danger," Torres said.

Engineers soon will be taken into the tunnel to examine its structural integrity and determine whether it's safe to open the streets overhead, he said.

In the meantime, the Orioles said that in addition to Saturday night's game, the team will make up Friday's canceled Angels game on Sunday as part of a doubleheader. No new dates had been set for games postponed Wednesday and Thursday against the Texas Rangers.

Camden Yards is only a few hundred yards from the tunnel, and the stadium had been used as a command post by emergency crews.

The city's firefighters and paramedics were honored at Saturday's game, a promotion put in place long before the derailment.

"They deserve it," Orioles' rookie Jay Gibbons said. "It's amazing what they're doing out there."

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said the team was disappointed by the postponements, "but then you realize that nothing can be done about it ... Those guys were working their tails off to get things right again, not just for us, but for the entire city."

On Saturday, three cars were still burning in the downtown tunnel and three more were smoldering, Torres said.

A ruptured water main above the tunnel continued gushing into a major downtown intersection, partly collapsing the street. At least 60 million gallons of water had spewed from the pipe.

City crews said the leak could not be stopped until the fire was extinguished and the tunnel walls had been certified safe.

"We're not anticipating the tunnel situation being totally resolved over the weekend," public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said.

Officials of the Maryland Department of the Environment said regular air quality tests since Wednesday detected no hazardous chemicals in the smoke.