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Parents of Ellicott City derailment victims speak out, say they blame CSX for deaths

Railway TransportationPublic Transportation DisastersNational Transportation Safety BoardTrials and ArbitrationCoalJustice System

The parents of two young women killed in a 2012 coal train derailment in Ellicott City criticized CSX Transportation for the first time Tuesday — blaming the railroad for their daughters' deaths.

"The families and our attorneys are determined to hold CSX fully accountable," said Eric Nass, father of 19-year-old Elizabeth Nass, in a statement released by the law firm Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, which specializes in rail disaster litigation nationwide.

"Our daughters did not cause the derailment, CSX did," said Sue Nass, Elizabeth's mother, in the statement. "A rail car should not turn over and kill innocent people."

The comments came just one day after the National Transportation Safety Board released hundreds of pages of investigative documents from the case, noting — among other findings — that a break in the rail not identified through maintenance efforts likely caused the derailment. The site of the break had been inspected the day before.

Other problems outlined in the documents, including an apparent backlog of rail repair needs along the curvy stretch of track that cuts through Ellicott City, also were raised by the parents.

The accident asphyxiated Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, also 19, after burying them in coal as they sat along the tracks on an overpass that carries the railroad across the historic community's Main Street.

The CSX right-of-way is private property, and the two college students, both 2010 Mount Hebron High School graduates, were trespassing by being on the bridge — a fact that could become central to any future litigation in the case, namely as the backbone of a CSX defense strategy if the parents pursue a lawsuit.

Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, declined to comment on the parents' comments Tuesday, and has said the railroad would not comment on the NTSB findings before the agency released its final report.

Doolittle also said Monday that CSX follows all federal regulations and takes safety seriously. He called the derailment a "tragedy" and said that "CSX's sympathies remain with the families."

The wreck dumped 21 rail cars and tons of coal along the rail bed and a parking lot between a railroad retaining wall and the Patapsco River, shutting Frederick Road and bringing Maryland Department of Environment officials to the scene to assess how much coal had entered the waterway.

The NTSB's final report will include conclusions as to the cause of the derailment and offer recommendations for how to prevent similar incidents. Eric Weiss, a NTSB spokesman, said Tuesday the report will be released in the next few weeks.

Sharon Mayr, Rose Mayr's mother, said the families' "hope is that the investigation will tell us why this derailment occurred and how we can best prevent such a tragedy in the future."

Mark Mayr, Rose's father, said he was "appalled at the lack of engineering rigor that goes into maintenance decisions" on the railroad's lines, citing information in the released documents that suggests a patch had been made a month earlier to a rail defect very close to where the derailment occurred. Despite the patch job and plans to repair the rails and the weakened rail bed, the railroad continued to operate at normal speed through the area, he said.

The families were not made available for interviews.

In the statement, Mayr cited documents from the NTSB investigation in which a CSX supervisor notes that the stretch of railroad through the Ellicott City area is known for a large number of curves and that rails along several of the curves were due for maintenance at the time of the derailment.

"You know, we've worked as hard as we can to identify [problems] because there was, you know, a lot of work to be done with getting the curve patch back up to snuff to where we needed to be," said the supervisor, Owen Smith, in an interview with NTSB investigators.

The families' full statement Tuesday also raised concerns about documents showing the Ellicott City stretch of tracks as prone to drainage problems.

Ronald Goldman, lead trial counsel at Baum Hedlund, said given all the problems noted with the local tracks, the families want a "public apology" from CSX for their daughters' deaths.

"CSX owes this family a public apology for what occurred, rather than hiding behind arcane trespass statutes," Goldman said.

He said the families also would seek a financial settlement.

"We have no other means to approximate what justice might be in an instance like this. … They bear responsibility for this and they need to accept and own up to that responsibility," Goldman said of the railroad.

In addition to pointing blame at CSX for the derailment, the parents on Tuesday criticized the NTSB for not holding a full board meeting to discuss its findings in the case, as the agency does in some transportation disasters.

"The families feel that a tragedy of this magnitude deserves a full board hearing," the families' statement said. "The events leading to their daughters' deaths should be fully examined out in the open, with a full accounting and investigation open to the public, and the solutions for preventing a future tragedy should be fully discussed."

In response, Weiss said the NTSB would give a full account of the derailment and recommendations to prevent future incidents in its final report, and also would be "holding a public forum to explore issues associated with unauthorized individuals in the railroad right-of-way."

Meanwhile, the families will be hosting their own event in coming weeks: the second annual "2 Miles for 2 Hearts" memorial run in Ellicott City, a fundraiser for scholarships set up in their daughters' names.

Last year's race drew more than 600 people to the historic community, and raised more than $20,000.

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Railway TransportationPublic Transportation DisastersNational Transportation Safety BoardTrials and ArbitrationCoalJustice System
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