Four callers sounded stunned as they told dispatchers that a train had just derailed in downtown Ellicott City, but none reported seeing anyone near the Aug. 20 wreck that killed two 19-year-olds, according to 911 recordings released Friday by Howard County officials.
"There is debris in the road on Main Street, one caller said late last Monday. "It looks like, I guess, a car tipped over and dumped the coal into the street."
Later in the brief call, he said, "I heard it happen. It pretty much happened right in front of me," telling the 911 operator that he was at the Phoenix Emporium, a downtown Ellicott City pub.
No callers said they saw the derailment take place. Police said that only later, at the scene, did they discover the two teenagers' bodies.
Killed in the accident were Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, friends who were crushed by coal spilling from the derailed cars, authorities ruled.
The longtime friends were seated on a railroad bridge about 20 feet above Main Street with their backs to the tracks when the CSX train's open-air coal cars began passing a few feet behind them. Police said their bodies were found still seated on the bridge.
The recordings were released the same day a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report on the accident might be ready as early as next week.
Callers to 911 described a train that appeared to have fallen over but remained on the bridge. Answering questions from the 911 operators, they said it appeared to be carrying cargo, and they didn't see a fire. Emergency operators could be heard telling each other they were getting calls about the same incident.
Responding to questions from the 911 operator, another caller said he heard "hissing" coming from the back and smelled what he thought might be fuel. The operator told him to get himself and others away from the accident area. When asked if the train had struck anything, he said, "I don't think so."
Another caller, also near the Phoenix, stayed on the phone as he approached the accident site — the sound of his footsteps as well as the crunch of a car driving on the coal are audible on the recording. He told the operator that it appeared the engine was upright, but as he looked down the tracks the length of "a football field" behind it, rail cars appeared to be on their side.
Asked by the 911 operator if anyone was on the train, a man who said he was looking out his window at the derailment replied, "Well, I don't know, it's a huge train."
Police said the recordings of the four calls were redacted to remove information that could identify the callers.
Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said Friday that a preliminary report on the accident could be out next week, with some basic information that investigators gathered on the scene. But a likely cause of the accident, analysis of findings and safety recommendations will come in a final report that could take a year to 18 months to complete.
The teenagers who were killed were 2010 graduates of Mount Hebron High School. Both were rising college juniors.