Ellicott City's historic center braced for a difficult, days-long cleanup of coal, overturned train cars and smashed vehicles after a Tuesday train derailment that crushed two 19-year-old women to death on a bridge.
Investigators said the town's uneven topography along the Patapsco River in Howard County added obstacles to an already complex recovery. In addition to the cleanup efforts, local state and federal officials began an investigation into the deaths, the derailment, and the potential impact of thousands of pounds of coal on local waterways.
"Accidents happen quickly. Investigations take a great deal of time," said Jim Southworth of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation into the accident.
Frederick Road, which becomes Main Street in Ellicott City, was closed to traffic from Old Columbia Pike to Oella Avenue, trapping several residents whose cars had been blocked in by emergency vehicles. Many Main Street businesses did not open Tuesday.
Officials said they could not estimate when the town center would return to normal operation, but they expected the road to be closed at least through late Wednesday morning. The train tracks would be closed even longer.
"It's hard to imagine until you see it. It's car after car after car overturned," said Howard County Council member Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City, after receiving a tour of the destruction. "They're working as fast as they can to get it open."
Police identified the two women killed as Elizabeth Conway Nass and Rose Louese Mayr, both 2010 graduates of Mount Hebron High School from Ellicott City. Police said the pair — set to return soon as rising juniors to James Madison University in Virginia and the University of Delaware, respectively — were seated on the bridge about 20 feet over Main Street with their backs to the tracks when the CSX train's open-air coal cars began to pass a few feet behind them.
The train derailed for an unknown reason, according to the NTSB investigator. Nass and Mayr were "buried under the coal as it dumped from the train cars," police said.
Their bodies were found still seated on the bridge, police said.
As part of the investigation into the deaths, police were processing the women's cellphones to determine the origin of a string of messages and photos they believe the women posted on the social media website Twitter just minutes before the derailment, including one that indicated they may have been drinking.
The three crew members on the train, who were not injured, told investigators they "felt nothing and saw nothing before emergency braking occurred," according to Southworth.
The emergency brakes engaged automatically as the result of a rupture in a pressurized air brake line somewhere along the train, Southworth said. He could not say whether the emergency braking, the rupture or some other problem caused the derailment, or whether the women's presence on the bridge contributed to the accident.
Benjamin Noppenberger, chef at Portalli's on Main Street, said he "heard a huge crash around midnight. Thought it was gunshots. It actually shook the house." Noppenberger, who lives in Ellicott City, added, "All you could see was train cars tumbled every which way and coal everywhere. [Train] cars were on the road and parking lot, and everything in the lot was crushed."
Tom Hane, site manager of the B&O; Railroad Museum Ellicott City Station, said the museum is regularly closed on Tuesdays but would likely have to remain closed through Thursday. "They have a lot of work to do because we're so close to the tracks," he said.
On Tuesday morning, emergency vehicles were parked three across all the way down Main Street, and county crews worked to clean up the spilled coal at the accident scene.
State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who was on the scene, said, "Everyone's doing the best they can. This is a tragedy for Howard County. We'll have to pick up the pieces."
According to Southworth, the derailment occurred at approximately 12:02 a.m. and involved two locomotives. Howard County police and fire crews soon began getting calls about the incident, police said.
The 80-car train from West Virginia, stretching 4,227 feet long and weighing more than 9,000 tons, was traveling at its authorized speed of 25 mph. Seven of the 21 derailed cars landed on a nearby parking lot. Southworth said the priority is to get the lot cleared.
Train cars that had not derailed were taken from the area, he said.
Patrick Moran, a consultant with RK&K; Engineering who lives near the railroad bridge, said he was walking along Main Street near his apartment when he heard the crash. He said it sounded as though someone had picked up a dumpster and thrown it.
He went to the tracks, approached a locomotive and saw no one there. Then he ran toward the back of the train, where he met a man who identified himself as the conductor.
"I asked him if he was all right," said Moran. The man said he had seen the women near the tracks, and had passed them. Then, he said "the rail blew out," the cars started going over, and the coal started spilling out, according to Moran.
Eric Weiss, an NTSB spokesman, said investigators got statements from CSX crew members Tuesday but would interview them in person for the first time Wednesday. "Certainly what the crew heard and saw is going to be of great interest to our investigators," he said.
CSX did not respond immediately to questions about the crew member's remarks.
On its website, CSX calls itself as the largest coal transporter east of the Mississippi River and says it "provides service from the largest number of active coal origins, seamlessly interchanges with Western railroads and short lines, and provides access to multiple Eastern seaports."
At least nine NTSB investigators were at the scene Tuesday. The agency is investigating signals, communication, conditions of the track, conditions of the bridge and equipment. They are also determining whether 25 mph was the correct speed for that stretch of track, Southworth said. A track expert flew in Tuesday from Chicago.
Southworth also noted that the train was equipped with a video camera that can provide information in the direction the train was headed. Once reviewed, the recording should help investigators determine what the engineer did or did not see, he said.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said emergency response and water management crews with the agency were on the scene starting at 1 a.m., but at first had limited access to the derailed trains because of the search and rescue operation.
Once they gained access, they determined that about half a carload of coal was in a "position likely to pollute" near a tributary of the Patapsco River, Apperson said. There were also an estimated 100 pounds of coal in the tributary's waters, he said.
Apperson said the crews then began working with an environmental engineering consultant hired by CSX to assess the water based on a number of pollution factors, including acidity, turbidity, iron and sediment levels.
The agency was also working with cleanup crews to limit erosion of soil into the tributary as the train cars were loaded onto flatbed trucks and the coal was loaded into dump trucks. The agency will continue to watch for coal falling into the waterway, Apperson said.
Steve Bayne drove in from Elkridge as soon as he heard about the accident because his daughter lives in a brick building approximately 100 yards from the train track and she wasn't answering her phone.
"I was totally panicked," Bayne said. "A few of the girls who live in the same building said she was OK. She's asleep. I need to go up there and wake her up. She's going to be mad, but I have to tell her mother she's OK."
Additionally, nearby Verizon facilities were damaged in the accident. The phone company said area customers might have trouble making long-distance calls. Businesses and government customers might have their data services interrupted as the company worked to repair facilities and restore some services by rerouting network traffic to other facilities, it said.
The derailment also damaged Verizon's fiberoptic lines serving the U.S. military, forcing the postponement of a pretrial hearing at Guantanamo Bay in the case of five men charged in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to the Associated Press. The defendants include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has previously told authorities that he was the "mastermind" of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
In a statement, Gov. Martin O'Malleycalled the deaths of Nass and Mayr tragic. O'Malley said he had been in touch with County Executive Ken Ulman and that the state would be providing support to the county in responding to the derailment.
In his own statement, Ulman called the derailment a "terrible tragedy," and asked the community to keep the families and friends of Nass and Mayr in their thoughts and prayers. He also praised the "swift and coordinated response" of emergency personnel from Howard and Baltimore counties at the scene.
Frank Kreis, who just moved to Ellicott City Monday with his fiancee, Heidi Gasparrini, viewed the accident scene early Tuesday morning.
"This was like that movie about the unstoppable train," Kreis said. "I was really impressed with how quickly the railroad people got here. They have new tracks ready to go."
Tractor-trailers loaded with new track were parked along Main Street and Courthouse Drive.
Later Tuesday, Paige Fuss, owner of Ellicott City Weddings and Events, said that youths and other people often hang out near the railroad tracks.
"It's not just kids. Tourists to the area" go up there as well, she said, as she worked on a makeshift memorial for the young women. "You look up there, it's sort of cool to stand up there and take pictures of the city."
Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman, said it is not unusual to find people close to the railroad tracks, but that it wasn't a major problem.
"We do see that from time to time — sometimes teenagers, sometimes homeless people," she said. "It's not an ongoing, significant issue. … We keep an eye on it."
Asked about teenagers drinking in the area, Llewellyn noted there has been no finding that alcohol was a factor in the deaths of the women, and said she didn't want to make "a blanket statement' about alcohol use.
"Sometimes young people congregate and do things that young people do," she said.
The derailment is the third accident this month in Maryland involving a CSX train, and the second partial derailment in Howard County, on the railway's Old Main Line from Relay to Point of Rocks.