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Ellicott City back on track one month after derailment

One month after a train derailed in Ellicott City, taking the lives of two teenage girls, the community has rallied together to put the historic district back on track.

"The community around here is the best," said Donna Delaney, an employee at Zebop, a retro alternative fashion store located near the tracks. "They've come down and supported us, and helped us bounce back. We were closed all week, and were the last to be allowed to open. It was hard."

The derailment, in which 21 cars on an 80-car CSX coal train came off the tracks that run through Ellicott City as they pass over a bridge across Main Street, occurred shortly before midnight on Monday, Aug. 20.

Coal spilled from the train as it derailed, burying 19-year-old Ellicott City residents Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, who were sitting near the tracks on the edge of the bridge over Main Street, facing Baltimore County. The medical examiner ruled the teens' deaths an accident, caused by compressional asphyxia.

The cause of the derailment is still unknown. A preliminary report released 10 days after the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, said the train was traveling at 25 mph when it derailed, the maximum authorized speed for that area of track.

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said Tuesday, Sept. 18 that no further updates are anticipated until the board releases its final report, which is not expected until 12 to 18 months following the derailment.

Although both CSX and the county are still working on restoration efforts, little evidence of the derailment remains, other than a makeshift memorial to the two victims on Main Street and some scattered coal debris under the bridge.

Meanwhile, shops and restaurants along Main Street, disrupted for nearly a week after the accident, have resumed business as usual.

"It's relatively back to normal," Phoenix Emporium owner Mark Hemmis said. "Lunch business has slowed down, but I think that's more for a lack of parking — they were opening and closing lots for awhile."

Though he's faced some difficulties because of the derailment, Hemmis said he believes his business, because of it's "unique spot" on the corner of Main Street and Maryland Avenue, has done better than most. The restaurant and bar served as a makeshift headquarters for the clean-up crews and NTSB following the accident.

"The Phoenix is the place people think of when they think of Ellicott City," he said. "I'm pretty fortunate; others took it a lot worse than I did."

Owen Hanratty, owner of Cacao Lane, also said his restaurant fared well after the derailment.

"We do pull a lot of business from Baltimore County, so there were issues for us, but other than that, it was a non-issue for business," he said. "We closed for half a day, and were open that night for the locals."

Hanratty said he's less concerned about the unpredictable events, such as the derailment and the earthquake, that have affected Ellicott City than events and issues the county can plan for, such as the ongoing redevelopment of the Hilltop, a low-income housing complex located north of Main Street on Mount Ida Drive, and lack of parking downtown.

"You get used to these things," he said. "We'll take terrible, but there's no plan to more forward, to improve parking. There's no urgency to truly get back to normal."

Barry Gibson, co-owner of the Forget-Me-Not Factory, said Ellicott City has been through a lot since he opened his store in 1985.

Through everything — new water mains, repair work on the bridge and multiple road resurfacings, for example — Gibson said he's doing what he has always done to keep business alive: promotions like blowing hundreds of thousands of bubbles for passersby on the sidewalk outside his store.

"That's how we survive," he said. "By doing something fun."

Several Main Street businesses are currently offering promotions through Oct. 10 as a part of "27 for Old EC," a campaign supported by Baltimore Ravens player #27 Ray Rice. Funds raised through the promotions will go to the Ellicott City Business Association to support derailment recovery efforts.

The business association will hold its annual fall arts festival Saturday, Sept. 29. This year, the festival will be held in conjunction with Main Street Music Fest, an all-day event featuring more than 50 regional bands playing on eight different stages.

Restoration ongoing

Damages from the accident, including environmental remediation costs, were estimated at $2.2 million, according to information NTSB obtained from CSX.

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said in emailed statement that the rail company continues to work closely with Howard County officials on restoration efforts.

One effort that has yet to completed is the restoration of a retaining wall damaged during the derailment. Until that work is complete, trains will be operating at reduced speeds of 10 mph, according to Sullivan.

"No dates have been set, but CSX understands the interest in completing the work as quickly as possible," he said.

He noted the company is also working to address the claims of local businesses, residents and government agencies affected by the derailment.

The county government has been heavily engaged in the relief efforts as well. The Department of Recreation and Parks worked with CSX to improve fencing near the B&0 Museum and the Police Department worked with the rail company to address potential safety issues, according to county spokesman Kevin Enright.

Once CSX has completed its work on the retaining wall, the Department of Public Works is planning to repave Main Street, as well as fix some curbing and accessibility issues along the street. Enright said CSX has promised to cover any costs the county incurs related to the derailment cleanup.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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