One year ago, when one hour of sleep a night was all Mark Mayr could manage in his grief, he set a goal: "I've got to make it through a year."
Eventually, sleep returned. But last week, as the first anniversary of his daughter Rose Mayr's death in a train derailment in the heart of Ellicott City approached, reminders were everywhere and the sleepless nights returned. "I felt myself slipping," he said.
For Eric Nass, whose daughter Elizabeth "Liz" Nass died alongside Rose Mayr when the coal train left its tracks, the anniversary also weighed heavily on his thoughts — the only comfort being that there would never again be a first Christmas without Liz, or a first birthday.
"At least the year of firsts will finally be over," he thought.
A federal investigation is still under way into the Aug. 20 accident that not only killed the two 19-year-old women but shut down the town for days and rattled its residents. A National Transportation Safety Board official said Tuesday that the organization is investigating the accident "vigorously" because it highlights the "increasing danger of non-passengers being near railroad tracks."
Non-passenger deaths have become more common than all other railroad-related deaths. A total of 843 people were killed or injured near railroad tracks in 2012, an 8 percent increase over 2011, and 356 have been killed so far this year, Robert Hall, director of the NTSB's office of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.
Hall mentioned Mayr and Nass, though not by name, saying the two college students were apparently "texting and chatting" on the bridge when the accident occurred.
"While their intent seems innocent, their actions broke the law, since railroad tracks are private property," Hall wrote. "It also placed them in grave danger."
Rose's and Liz's parents said they have been told nothing about the investigation. "To my mind, the answer's not going to change the things we have to live through, but we want to know what happened," Mark said.
For the two sets of parents, the last year has been a challenge met one day at a time.
Bursts of laughter will come to Sue Nass and Sharon Mayr when they remember their daughters' antics while dancing at Mount Hebron High School together, but tears can be quick to surface, too.
Mark can look on Rose's high school and college pictures fondly, but images from her childhood trigger too much emotion. At his parents' home in Cape Cod earlier this summer, Eric remembered some of his fondest memories with Liz but anguished over her absence.
Through it all, though, the grieving parents said they have been buoyed by the compassion of others: family and friends, neighbors and strangers. New connections, such as those with their daughters' college friends whom they hadn't met — Rose attended the University of Delaware and Liz James Madison University — have given them new windows into their daughters' lives.
Community support also has been critical in the lead up to the anniversary of their daughters' deaths, which they consider to be Wednesday — the train derailed around midnight, killing the teens through compressional asphyxia.
When about 600 people descended on Ellicott City to honor Rose and Liz with a memorial run this past weekend, and two benches were dedicated in their honor in the town's tiny Tiber Park, anxiety over the anniversary eased, they said.
"When the sun was shining and the weather was like no other August in Maryland I can remember, it was like it was meant to be," Sharon said. "After the race I feel like I came to a turning point, where I want to go on more than I did before. I'm better equipped."
"For me it was something positive to focus on, instead of our loss," Sue said.
"Instead of a big black hole," said Sharon.
NTSB officials have released no new details as to the cause of the derailment since a preliminary report 10 days after the CSX Transportation train leaped off its tracks. A final report is pending, as investigations into derailments often taken as long as 18 months.
The train was traveling at its designated 25 mph speed for the area, and its emergency brakes had engaged automatically as the result of a rupture in a pressurized air brake line, but what caused the rupture is unknown, officials have said. The three crew members on the train told investigators that they "felt nothing and saw nothing before emergency braking occurred."
The train cars fell toward the river, away from the curved street of businesses, and the damage was more contained than it could have been.
The coal that buried and killed the women as they sat on the edge of the bridge, the 21 derailed train cars and the crushed vehicles parked in town when the train came undone have long been removed.
Local residents and shopkeepers got back to work once the cleanup was completed. The stain of coal washed away. New fencing along the train tracks was installed to further restrict access to the area. And Howard County police added a community officer to monitor the area along with CSX security. The town has provided rail safety information at recent events to promote the downtown area.
The town's recovery from such an "exceedingly complex and intense" disaster in such a small area was "a testament to the community, how much they pulled together," said Ryan Miller, the county's emergency management director.
"To see how a sudden and unpredictable scenario would play out in Ellicott City was pretty amazing," Miller said. "It is a really, really cool town, because everybody kind of chips in to get through stuff like this."
CSX, which Miller called an "ideal partner" in the cleanup, resumed train service on the tracks not long after the derailment. A spokeswoman this week said the company continues to keep the Nass and Mayr families in their thoughts and is cooperating fully with the NTSB investigation.
On that dark morning a year ago, Liz Nass and Rose Mayr couldn't be found but everyone knew they'd been near the bridge around the time of the derailment because of messages they had posted on Twitter.
Liz's brother, Brendan, saw the posts, heard about the accident, and then called his father after frantically and unsuccessfully trying to reach his sister with the help of his younger brother Jonathan.
First Eric Nass and his current wife, Patti, and then Sue Nass, and then Mark Mayr arrived at the scene. Sharon Mayr would come soon after. The fathers approached everyone they could, emergency workers and bystanders, asking them for more information. It had been a few hours since the accident, and word of two casualties was circulating.
"If you can at least rule out that it was 19-year-old girls, I can go home," Eric remembers telling police. "Just tell me it wasn't two 19-year-old girls."
The officers wouldn't provide details of the immediate investigation, "but they weren't telling us to go home," Eric said.
"What we weren't being told was telling," said Mark.
At some point all the parents were welcomed into the nearby Phoenix Emporium restaurant and bar by its owner, Mark Hemmis.
"I have kids, so it wasn't a right thing or wrong thing, it was just something that needed to get done," Hemmis said. "Nobody had anywhere to go."
A chaplain who volunteers with the county Fire Department arrived. Still, the parents had no confirmation of the horrible fears rushing through their heads.
About 6 a.m., a local television report on the derailment came on in the bar. There was Liz's picture. Still no official word. It would be another two hours before the parents were taken to the Howard County police station.
Sharon would identify Rose by viewing a picture taken of her body. Sue's brother, Chip Simpson, a major in the Delaware State Police, identified Liz. Simpson had immediately begun driving to Ellicott City when Sue called him earlier in the morning.
"We had to do the unthinkable for any parent," Sharon said.
The parents began calling family members, afraid they would hear the horrible news from someone else. Mark called Rose's sister Anna in Manhattan, one of the most difficult things he's ever done, he said.
As the weeks passed, Mark and Sharon, Eric and Sue became bonded in their shared grief. "This experience was a hell of a thing, and we've kind of drawn on each other," Mark said.
They are thankful their daughters weren't alone at the end, even as they wish neither was there that night.
A couple of nights this week, Eric has gone down to Ellicott City with Patti and other family members and sat at the two benches dedicated to Liz and Rose. One night a young man, 19, the same age as his daughter, played "Stairway to Heaven" on his guitar in the women's honor as Eric listened to the Tiber tributary trickle past.
"Your free and caring spirit left this earth too soon," reads the bench placard for Rose.
"Live joyously ... Peace," reads the one for Liz.
"It seemed perfect," Eric said of the moment.
There have been more and more of those moments lately.
Beyond the race, which a committee of the young women's friends helped plan, and the benches, which were purchased with the support of the Ellicott City Business Association, scholarships have also been established in both women's names, the parents said.
Fellow dancers from the women's time at Mount Hebron dedicated an alumni performance to them in May. Students and sorority sisters have launched efforts to remember the women at Delaware, where Rose was a nursing major, and at James Madison, where Liz dreamed of becoming a special education teacher.
Sue and Sharon wear lockets that bear the logo of the "2 miles for 2 hearts" race, which was designed by Brendan and includes a rose for Rose, a peace sign for Liz, and three leaves on the rose for Brendan, Anna and Jonathan.
"We probably don't even realize all the people who have done something," said Mark.
For that, the four parents said, they'll always be grateful.
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