Ellicott City derailment raises questions of track safety

Elizabeth Conway Nass
Elizabeth Conway Nass (Mt. Hebron Yearbook photo/2010)

As cleanup crews and investigators focus on the aftermath of a coal train derailment that killed two college students in Ellicott City, some officials are looking at new ways to keep people off the tracks that run through the historic district.

Hours after the 19-year-old friends were killed sitting on the railroad bridge over Main Street, a representative of the railroad company CSX was on the scene looking at several points of access to the tracks, sizing up what might be done, Kevin Enright, a Howard County spokesman, said Wednesday. He said County Executive Ken Ulman spoke with CSX representatives soon after the derailment about what the company and the county could do to tighten security around the tracks, which have run through town since the 19th century.

Howard County police said Rose Mayr and Elizabeth Nass, who were home on summer break, were apparently buried by coal that spilled from one of the overturned rail cars. Nass had sent a Twitter message shortly before the accident saying she was drinking on the bridge, which is about 20 feet above the street.

Ulman conveyed a simple message on Wednesday about the railroad tracks: "The bottom line is, don't go up there."

He was speaking to reporters on Main Street, his back to the railroad bridge where work crews using cranes and bulldozers continued to remove spilled coal and rail cars. By late Wednesday afternoon, 18 of the 21 cars that derailed on the 80-car train had been removed and three remained near a public parking lot on the east side of the railway bridge, said Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the accident investigation.

Earlier in the day, lead investigator Jim Southworth said officials were still early in the lengthy process of gathering information and could not say what caused the derailment. He said they were looking at all possibilities and he expected the agency to be on the scene through Thursday or longer. The agency also planned to examine the teens' cellphones — which were apparently used to post online photos shortly before the derailment, police said.

It was not clear when work crews would be able to reopen Main Street, about two-thirds of which has been closed since soon after the derailment Tuesday morning. A statement posted on the CSX web site Wednesday night said the rail company expected to resume running trains over the Ellicott City line sometime between midnight Wednesday and 6 a.m. Thursday. The statement said the streets in the area around the tracks would remain closed, however, as the coal cleanup continues.

The Maryland Department of the Environment had taken steps to protect a tributary of the Patapsco River from potential contamination from spilled coal, said agency spokesman Jay Apperson. About 100 pounds of coal had spilled into a tributary, and a rail car had spilled a much larger amount near the water's edge, he said.

He said fences and a boom had been set up on the shore and in the water to curb potential contamination, and the agency would be testing water quality regularly. He said the coal turned out to be a low-sulfur variety, which presents a lower risk of acid contamination.

Ulman, meanwhile, said his most immediate concern was getting Main Street back to normal.

"I want this place open yesterday," he said.

Along Main Street, business owners gave mixed reports about how the shutdown was affecting commerce.

Grant Day, the manager of the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company at the top end of Main Street, away from the accident site and on the portion of the street not closed to traffic, said business seemed about normal. Farther down the street, at the Still Life Gallery, co-owner David Dempster said he'd seen few customers since opening Wednesday morning.

Angela Tersiguel, treasurer of the Ellicott City Business Association, said that in light of the two deaths, business people were reluctant to complain too much about the road being closed.

"It's hard for business people to get up in arms knowing two people in our community were killed," said Tersiguel, whose husband, Michel, owns Tersiguel's restaurant, at the upper end of Main Street.

As the cleanup and investigation continued, details of the teens' funerals were released. Visitation for Nass is planned for 5-8 p.m. Thursday at the Church of the Resurrection, 3175 Paulskirk Drive in Ellicott City. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the church.

The Mayr family has scheduled viewings from 3-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Friday at Harry H. Witzke's Family Funeral Home, 4112 Old Columbia Pike in Ellicott City. A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Bethany United Methodist Church, 2875 Bethany Lane in Ellicott City.

Ulman said the county and railroad officials would continue to work on keeping people away from the railroad tracks, but it was not yet clear what form that effort would take. At a meeting attended by county department heads and CSX representatives later in the day, officials of the county police, public works departments and CSX agreed to take a closer look at the several points of access to the tracks and see what might be done, Enright said.

He said CSX representatives suggested that part of their effort could include a public education campaign warning of railroad track dangers.

CSX spokesman Gary Sease told reporters early in the day that railroad tracks were built for easy access to shippers, farmers or anyone else who might need to use the rails to move goods. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, CSX has paid more attention to security, but added that there's still a balance to be struck between security and access.

It's a particular challenge in Ellicott City, where the tracks run right next to a public attraction, the B&O Railroad Museum: Ellicott City Station. The stone building houses what the museum web site calls the oldest surviving rail station in the nation. Indeed, the tracks seem almost as much a part of the museum as the red caboose that stands outside the main building. A set of stairs outside the museum leads to the edge the tracks.

Across Main Street from the museum, next to a block of stone buildings, a flight of stone stairs also leads to the tracks. From the top of some 30 steps it's just a matter of climbing over a low fence to make it onto the tracks.

That may or may not be the way Mayr and Nass got to the tracks before they took their spots sitting on the bridge over Main Street, their backs to the tracks, their feet dangling over the edge — but many people take that route.

"That's how everyone gets up there," said Jamin Geoghegan, who lives on Main Street just a few doors down from that stairway. He has occasionally seen kids up there, and people who seem to be homeless, but not so often — maybe eight times in the six months he's lived in town.

Wandering near the tracks may or may not be a common local practice — it depends on whom you ask. Some people in town say they see people up there all the time — teenagers, tourists and people who appear to be homeless. Others say it hasn't been a big problem.

Sherry Llewellyn, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department, said that "we do see that from time to time" but it's not an "ongoing, significant issue."

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who represents the area, agreed.

"I have lived in this community my entire life," said Watson, who was elected to the council six years ago. "I have high school- and college-age kids. It has never been a huge issue. We are not aware of it being a major hangout. ... This has not been presented to me as a concern of the community."

Still, she said, "we have to educate everyone that railways are not safe places to be."

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.



Recommended on Baltimore Sun