The cause of a freight train derailment in Ellicott City, Md., remains under lengthy investigation, but CSX and Howard County officials are already addressing another element to that fatal tragedy.
Two 19-year-old women were sitting on one side of the railroad bridge over Main Street with their backs to the tracks as the train passed a few feet behind them just after midnight Tuesday. Their bodies were found buried under coal dumped from the train cars as they derailed.
The deceased 19-year-olds -- Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr -- weren’t the first teenagers to hang out on the railroad tracks, but officials hope they are the last. According to CSX, people on train tracks are a nationwide problem. CSX vowed to work with local authorities to keep people off the tracks -- a commitment echoed by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.
“We’ve got to take a look at this with CSX and figure out how we make sure this is secure as possible,” he said.
CSX asked a community safety manager to look at the safety aspects of the railroad line and whether the area can be better secured, Ulman said.
Ulman said nobody should be on train tracks and that they're an ”incredibly dangerous place.” He said officials want to continue to get that message out and “don't want anything like this to happen again.”
Meanwhile, tracks were being put back together Wednesday as part of the investigation. Investigators expect to be at the scene for the next two days -- bad for businesses on Main Street, which remain open although Main Street in the area will remain closed.
Investigators were checking videos, track conditions and maintenance records to learn whether the college students sitting on the bridge contributed to the Monday night crash or if their presence was just a tragic coincidence. They are also interviewing the three-person crew -- a conductor, an engineer and an engineer-in-training, who was at the controls when the train derailed.
Investigators have said that the train was traveling at the authorized speed of 25 mph and that the train's emergency brakes were applied automatically -- not by the crew.
The crew reported feeling “nothing, and they saw nothing before emergency breaking occurred on their train,” said National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jim Southworth.”
Paul Bodnar, a rail safety consultant and former federal railroad investigator who is not involved in the investigation, told the Associated Press there are a number of potential causes for the derailment. He said a broken rail, a gap or buckle in the track, and a broken wheel could all be possibilities, given photos that show the first cars of the train derailed. Bodnar said it was also possible that the train's locomotives hit a weak spot on the track, causing a crack in the rail and derailing the following cars.
Bodnar said it was almost certain that a derailment caused the engagement of the train's emergency breaking system, not the other way around.
Authorities also planned autopsies of the two women to determine how they died, and their bodies have been turned over to the state medical examiner's office.
Funeral services for Nass and Mayr were scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Tweets and photos from the women chronicled some of their final moments together as they enjoyed a summer night together before they headed back to school. “Drinking on top of the Ellicott City sign,” read one tweet. “Looking down on old ec,” read another.
The bridge the women were on is easily accessible from downtown Ellicott City. An original stone bridge was built around 1830, according to Courtney Wilson, executive director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore. He said it was replaced after an 1868 flood with an iron truss bridge that provided wider lanes for vehicles passing beneath. That structure was replaced around 1930 with the current steel span.
Shelley Wygant of the Howard County Historical Society said the edge of the bridge on which the women sat, facing the Patapsco River, is at least 2 feet from the single set of railroad tracks. The side of the bridge facing the town has a wider platform, she said.
“I don't think anybody would want to be up there when trains go by,” Wygant said, adding she had been on the span to hang banners and remembers thinking, “I hope a train doesn't come.”