In the year that he has lived on Main Street in historic Ellicott City, Jim VanHeel has seen flooding, a deadly shooting at a nearby church and, early Tuesday morning, a fatal train derailment.
"It seems like something is always happening," he said.
The latest incident, the derailment of a CSX coal train, occurred around midnight Tuesday, and claimed the lives of two teenage girls who were sitting close to the tracks.
Late Tuesday morning, county police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn identified the two victims as Rose Louese Mayr and Elizabeth Conway Nass, both 19 and from Ellicott City.
Tuesday afternoon, Llewellyn released additional information about the accident.
"The teens' bodies were located seated on the edge of a bridge over Main Street," Llewellyn said in a news release. "It appears to investigators that the girls were sitting on the ledge facing east toward Baltimore County with their backs to the side of the train as it passed a few feet behind them.
"For an unknown reason, the train derailed, causing open cars filled with coal to tip over. Both Nass and Mayr were buried under the coal as it dumped from the train cars."
The official causes of death will not be known until after autopsies are performed, police said.
Mayr and Nass were 2010 graduates of Mount Hebron High School.
"They were great students, great people, active in the school; both were involved in dance," Mount Hebron Principal Scott Ruehl said. "It's a tragic loss for not just Mount Hebron and the families but the whole community, because they're such great kids."
Ruehl said counseling will be available for students when they return to school next week. The school also has a list of outside counselors for parents wishing to get their children in counseling this week.
Cynthia Dillon, Principal at Patapsco Middle School, broke the news to staff this morning when only Nass' death was confirmed
"There were a lot of tears," Dillon said. "There was shock and the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach you get when something happens to someone you care about."
Dillon has only been principal at Patapsco since 2010, but she said many teachers remembered Nass.
"When you go into education, you never expect to outlive your students, and for Elizabeth to be as accomplished as people told me she was, its exceptionally hard," Dillon said.
"These kids are our kids forever, it's as much of a pain as if she was still walking through the hallways today," Dillon said.
Police said Mayr was a student at the University of Delaware and Nass attended James Madison University in Virginia.
Outside of the Nass residence on Sara Beth Court early Tuesday afternoon, family members declined to comment.
A family friend and classmate of Elizabeth Nass' younger brother, Jon Nass, stopped by the house to drop off a rose and express her condolences to the family.
"She was always very nice and very pretty, and was someone people would look up to," Mount Hebron High School Senior Tish Carmona said. "So many people are praying for them. We love them."
The train, which had two locomotives and 80 loaded coals cars, was traveling from West Virginia to Baltimore. According to reports, 21 cars derailed, including some onto a nearby parking lot.
The derailment shut down Ellicott City's Main Street starting at Old Columbia Pike. Pedestrians could walk almost all the way down to Maryland Avenue, however, and the accident attracted a crowd of onlookers, including some public officials.
The National Transportation Safety Board had taken over the investigation, and Jim Southworth, investigator in charge or the incident, spoke to the media Tuesday afternoon.
Southworth said he and his nine-member team spent the day gathering as much information as possible: video from a camera mounted to the front of the train, which will be sent to Washington for examination, as well as photos of the tracks and witness statements.
Three crew members were on the train, Southworth said, and "felt nothing and saw nothing" until the emergency brake was activated.
The brake, Southworth said, is activated any time there is a disruption — like a derailment — along the line of cars. Southworth would not say what caused the derailment, nor did he know where the break was in the line that caused the brake to be pulled. The train, he said, was traveling at 25 mph, and the cars that derailed were immediately behind the front locomotive.
"These accidents happen very quickly, in a matter of seconds," Southworth said. "And the investigations are quite lengthy, and that's on purpose. (We're leaving) no stone unturned. We want to know not just what happened, but why it happened."
County Council member Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City, said she was given a tour of the accident scene.
"It's hard to imagine until you see it," she said. "It's car after car after car overturned."
Watson added: "They're working as fast as they can to get it open."
County Executive Ken Ulman had arrived at the scene shortly after the derailment early Tuesday morning and had stayed through early morning, she said.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Ulman called the derailment "a terrible tragedy" and extended sympathies to the victims' families.
"Within an hour of the incident, I was on the ground to witness the swift and coordinated response efforts of our public safety personnel — from both Howard and Baltimore counties — as well as CSX and the National Transportation Safety Board," Ulman said in the statement. "I want to thank our local and federal partners for their support as the investigation continues, and ask that the community continues to keep the Nass and Mayr families and friends in our thoughts and prayers."
Some Main Street businesses opened as scheduled Tuesday. Others remained close through the late morning hours. Some business owners had not yet decided what to do.
Taylor's Antique Mall opened, but employee Susan Herd said: "We're not sure for how long."
Her colleague Noelle League said she felt really sad about the accident and noted: "It doesn't feel right to open."
The two had to open the store to do their scheduled payroll. They said they might close by midday, but as people started walking in they noted they may remain open just as a place for people to cool down from the heat.
Ed Williams, co-owner of Mumbles and Squeaks Toy Shoppe in Ellicott City, had just arrived at his shop shortly after 10 a.m. and said he hadn't decided whether to open.
"It's a tough call ... I don't think there would be any business," he said, noting he planned to stay downtown regardless of whether they open the shop.
Though the crowd of onlookers had already started to grow, Williams said: "I don't think it's appropriate to capitalize on a tragedy."
Lauren Ward, who works at Ooh La Lal hair salon on Main Street, said early Tuesday, as she observed the crews at the accident scene, that her boss was planning to open.
Ward, who lives in a third floor apartment above the salon, said she was awake when the train derailed.
"It was like midnight. … I heard the train. And it was screeching so loud, as loud as I'd ever heard it. And I thought to myself it sounds like it's derailing," Ward said.
John Beck, who lives in an apartment on Main Street near Ward's, said he slept through it.
"I didn't hear anything until 2 o'clock until I heard the idling of the fire engine," Beck said.Beck, who has lived in Ellicott City for 40 years and in his Main Street apartment for 26 years,
"I've never seen a derailment like this; I've never seen a derailment, period," added Beck, who has lived in Ellicott City for 40 years and on Main Street for 26. "Just a few accidents."
Asked if he's ever felt the trains or the old track posed a safety hazard, Beck said he's never really thought about it.
"The train is just part of the environment, just part of the landscape," he said.
But VanHeel, who just moved to Ellicott City from Washington last September, was not as surprised.
"It's got to be a 100-year-old bridge," he said. "You'd expect something to happen."
VanHeel, noting that he normally walks his dog around midnight, thought aloud about how he could have walked by the bridge when the accident happened.
In the year that he has lived in Ellicott City, VanHeel noted there has been flooding, a deadly shooting at a nearby church and now a train derailment.
"It seems like something is always happening," he said.
However, Van Heel said he is still happy with his decision to move to Ellicott City.
"We love it," he said. "It's a great place."
Tuesday afternoon, as crews, media and on-lookers swarmed the restricted zone of Main Street, it was business as usual at Subway. The crowds, some said, were actually good for business.
"It actually hasn't fazed us," said Jacob Boffen, a Subway employee. "It's brought us more business than we usually have. We had our first customer at about 8 a.m. Usually, we don't have our first customer until 9 or 10 a.m. ... People want to see it, and I guess after they see it, they get hungry. I guess we'll have to see if (clean-up is) prolonged."
Brenda Franz, who owns Attic Antiques 'N Things, said she had never seen so many people on Main Street on a Tuesday afternoon, walking by her shop on the non-restricted part of Main Street to get closer to the scene.
"So many people are walking by, coming down here after they heard about it," she said. "I don't think it's going to have an impact on business. I've had plenty of sales today."
The general manager and sommelier at Pure Wine Cafe, Mark Bowman, said things were "a little odd, a little crazy" as he prepared to open at 4 p.m. Pure Wine Cafe is situated right at the top of the restricted zone, and it was too soon to tell if business would be affected, Bowman said, though anytime something creates traffic or parking issues, it has an effect on customers.
"To have half the street blocked off, it's going to cut into our daily routine," he said. "Short of that, we have to keep it business as usual. This is just sad, and surreal, that's the best way to describe it. ... At this point, we'll take what we can get."
Megan Dennehy, who lives above Great Panes on Main Street, on the closed portion of the road, was awake when the train derailed.
"We were awake, playing music and making food," she said. "This is just unbelievable. My boyfriend thought he heard, or felt, a shudder, and we didn't think anything of it until we heard the sirens."
Greg Myers, who lives on Town and Country Boulevard near downtown Ellicott City, said: "It's just a terrible thing that happened.
"Glad I wasn't up there because we used to be up there back in the day," he said.
Myers said he was surprised by the derailment.
"I always thought it was safe," he said. "We used to party up there."
Staff writers Luke Lavoie and Sara Toth contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun