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‘I needed to know what happened’: A father’s quest to understand derailment that killed 2 young women in Ellicott City

Sharon Mayr, the mother of Rose Mayr, wears a locket Aug. 5, 2022, with a photo of her daughter and a lock of her hair. Rose died with her friend, Elizabeth Nass, in the derailment of a coal car train in Ellicott City on Aug. 20, 2012.

One February day, he climbed onto the rail bed himself, with lengths of string to measure the curvature and tilt of the tracks.

Other times, at night, on weekends and vacations, he pored over technical papers, filed Freedom of Information Act requests for data and familiarized himself with such concepts as transverse detail fractures, fouled ballast and vertical track deflection.

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“I was kind of obsessed,” Mark Mayr says now, “and she was tolerant.”

“It got to be a little much,” his wife, Sharon Mayr, conceded. “It was hard to watch him go through it, the many hours of work.

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“It was a process Mark had to go through. That’s how he worked through his grief.”

Ten years ago, their daughter, Rose Mayr, and her near lifelong friend, Elizabeth Nass, both 19, had sneaked onto the tracks where they cross over Main Street in Ellicott City, dangling their feet over the edge and snapping a photo as they sought to cap the end of summer before heading back to college.

Instead, an approaching CSX train loaded with thousands of tons of coal derailed, 21 of its 80 cars jumping the tracks. The avalanche of coal buried and asphyxiated the two friends.

The catastrophe just before midnight Aug. 20, 2012, closed Main Street for days as crews cleaned up the wreck. Some rail cars had fallen onto a parking lot below, crushing several vehicles and dumping mounds of coal and debris.

It took almost two years for the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate and conclude that a worn section of rail had fractured several hundred feet from where the young women sat, sending the cars off the tracks.

Today, the friends who met in kindergarten and graduated from Mount Hebron High School would be 29 years old. Maybe Elizabeth Nass would be a teacher, and Rose Mayr a nurse. That is what they were studying for as rising juniors, Nass at James Madison University and Mayr at the University of Delaware.

Sharon Mayr, holds a picture of her daughter, Rose Mayr, at right, and Elizabeth Nass, left, her daughter's best friend. Both were killed in a train derailment in Ellicott City.

Instead, scholarships created in their memory continue to help other students on those paths, among the legacies public and private that helped their families and community deal with their loss.

“We all had to do what we had to do to survive,” said Sue Nass Hogan, 60.

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Sometimes, the speech-language therapist will go sit on the benches on Main Street that bear the two friends’ names. She takes comfort in the support from her extended family, the lasting bond the pairs of parents formed and the embrace of the larger community, friends and strangers alike who organized such commemorations as a fundraising run called 2 Miles for 2 Hearts.

“We definitely had a village,” she said.

Mark and Sharon Mayr, parents of Rose Mayr, who died with her friend, Elizabeth Nass, in the derailment of a coal car train in historic Ellicott City on Aug. 20, 2012.  August 5, 2022.

As time went on, Mark Mayr, 65, found himself needing to do more than remember, more than fashioning a locket for Sharon with a tiny photo of Rose and a lock of her brown hair.

He was disappointed by the findings the NTSB released in 2014, which listed just one “postacccident action”: the installation of “a chain-link fence along the right-of-way ... to deter future trespassing,” which was done.

Sharon Mayr, the mother of Rose Mayr, wears a locket with a photo of her daughter and a lock of her hair. Rose died with her friend, Elizabeth Nass, in the derailment of a coal car train in Ellicott City on Aug. 20, 2012.  August 5, 2022.

While the families acknowledged the friends shouldn’t have been on the train bed, it was not uncommon for people to go up there and, in any event, the NTSB concluded their presence didn’t contribute to the derailment.

Mayr characterized the NTSB’s probable cause of the derailment, a worn rail that had fractured, as “empty” — more a description of events than a reason.

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“A rail broke. A train derailed,” Mayr said. “But the real question of the day was, ‘Why did the rail break?’

“That’s the engineer in me,” he said. “I needed to know what happened.”

An electrical engineer, Mayr works at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, a research center that supports national security needs. He specializes in sensors, systems and instrumentation for lasers, missiles, submarines and spacecraft.

To understand the accident, Mayr cast a wide net, gathering topographical maps from Howard County, studying investigative reports of other derailments, seeking out experts and even joining an association of railway engineers and attending their conferences to network.

The 4,227-foot train had left Cumberland at 4 p.m. that day, eastbound for Baltimore. The derailment in Ellicott City occurred on a stretch of track that is the oldest common carrier railroad route in the U.S., the Old Main Line Subdivision that the Baltimore & Ohio laid down in 1830.

Mayr’s on-site measurements — with the aid of a willing neighbor and 100-foot lengths of string — gave him insight into how the track curved and banked around the rocky hillsides and the Patapsco River on its approach to the city’s historic Main Street.

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“It clued me in to how dynamic the track is,” he said. “It looked like a Coney Island roller coaster.”

He came to focus on areas he felt were given short shrift by the NTSB report, including something that perennially besets this low-lying, flood-prone town: water, and its drainage.

Mayr points to evidence of what is called fouled ballast in the vicinity of the derailment. Ballast is the gravel or crushed stones that lie beneath the track structure, supporting it and providing drainage.

But the ballast can become fouled as finer material fills in the spaces between the stones, some of which comes from the rocks themselves grinding into sand over time from the up-and-down movement of the rails, or vertical track deflection, as trains pass over them. The result hampers drainage. Mud can form, creating suction that increases and stresses the rail.

“That’s when you have the recipe for track flexing,” Mayr said.

A small crack in a rail can become a bigger one, ultimately fracture and cause a derailment, he said.

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A former NTSB official who helped Mayr during his investigation likened it to what would happen to a piece of pliable plastic.

“You flex it back and forth, eventually a crack develops and eventually it will snap,” said Bob Chipkevich, who formerly directed the NTSB’s office of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations.

Mayr came across Chipkevich’s name through his research and suspected he was related to someone who worked at APL — a sister, it turned out. They met, and Mayr credits Chipkevich, who retired from the NTSB in 2010 and became a safety consultant, with “opening doors” for him at federal agencies and on Capitol Hill.

Chipkevich said he was impressed by Mayr’s mastery of the subject and happy to help.

“Mark, of course, is a brilliant engineer,” he said. “He clearly understood the mechanics of rail failure.”

Mayr came to believe there needed to be better ways of measuring factors, such as poor track support from fouled ballast, that turn a small, undetectable defect into a more damaging one — and how quickly that can happen.

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He made some strides in pushing for changes, however incremental.

In June 2015, Mayr and Eric Nass, who declined to comment for this article, met with congressional staff, including from the office of the late Baltimore congressman, Elijah Cummings. The Democrat had served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the subcommittee that includes railroads. Cummings, whose district included the site of the derailment, introduced an amendment that became part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015.

The amendment called on the Federal Railroad Administration to report to Congress on research into measuring vertical track deflection.

“These families have worked tirelessly to understand the technical circumstances that led to the 2012 train derailment and to identify specific steps that can be taken to prevent future tragedies,” Cummings said in a statement read into the Congressional Record.

Mayr continued his research, even as it started to exhaust him. Eventually, he found a focus: He would petition the NTSB to reconsider and modify its conclusion on the probable cause of the accident. It took “an intense month” to compile the petition — which detailed his arguments; provided research, charts and photos; and listed recommendations — finishing it June 30, 2016.

As he awaited a response, Congress received the report required by the FAST Act. It addressed test results of instruments to measure displacement and the development of inspection criteria for poor track support, and generally concluded there was a need for more data, analyses and research.

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“Good thorough report,” Mayr noted in a timeline he maintained over the course of his investigation, “but anticlimactic because nothing binding.”

Image from the National Transportation Safety Board IIC Factual Report  showing water and mud under a derailed car. Investigators noted that several locations prior to and at the point of derailment exhibited "fouled ballast" conditions or saturation of the subgrade. Investigators observed that the south ditch line was wet and there was evidence of water flow along the ditch line.

The NTSB responded to his petition more than a year later. It changed the probable cause slightly to include that an undetected defect grew to “catastrophic failure” due to a combination of a worn railhead and high loads.

In discussing the issue of fouled ballast, it determined current criteria for assessing track support were adequate and saw no need to add to them. In fact, a statement in support of the original probable cause that had mentioned “poor ballast conditions” was rewritten to eliminate the reference.

Mayr doesn’t know the reason for the change. The NTSB declined a request for comment.

CSX, which entered into a confidential settlement with the families, said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that it investigates accidents and uses the findings to improve safety. It noted that its tracks are maintained in accordance with federal and company standards,which includes regularly testing the integrity of the track structure, including gauge, ballast levels and alignment.”

The NTSB found that the company was inspecting the Old Main Line much more frequently than required and a review of its records found no anomalies.

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While Mayr would have preferred more quantifiable fixes to problems he highlighted, he said he feels he did well by his “very caring, very athletic, free-spirited” daughter by pushing to learn more about what happened.

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“I did as much as I could,” he said simply.

Sharon Mayr, 70, feels her questions were satisfied, as well. She left her work as a medical technologist analyzing bloodwork to raise Rose and an older sister. After the derailment, she, too, needed to find out more. She talked to paramedics about what they found on the scene, as well as to the medical examiner.

“I had to ask the hard questions: ‘Was there anything else that could have been done?’” Sharon Mayr said. The answer she received: “‘This was incompatible with life.’”

“We’re both scientists,“ she said. “That’s the way Mark and I are.”

 Sue Nass Hogan with her daughter, Elizabeth Nass, on her 19th birthday in October 2011.

As the 10th anniversary approached, Sue Nass Hogan said she’d spend it with her two sons, one older and one younger than Elizabeth. But she said she doesn’t need a specific day to remember her: “It’s more an ongoing thing.”

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Elizabeth used to have a sticker with a peace sign on her car, and the symbol has become a talisman for family and friends. Hogan’s older son designed a peace sign that incorporates Elizabeth’s initial. It was made into stickers — Hogan spotted one on a car in the neighborhood recently — that were sold in local stores and embroidered on baseball caps for friends and family.

“It’s a nice way,” she said, “for people to have a piece of her.”


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