For some teens in Ellicott City, area near train tracks has served as a hidden refuge
By Ashley Halsey III and Jenna Johnson,
Too young for the bars, too old for the playground and too bored to stay home, kids of that awkward age in Ellicott City are no different from kids anywhere else in America.
Some risk the wrath of security guards to hang out at the mall, some stroll from shop window to shop window on Main Street.
And a few find refuge around the train tracks that skirt the edge of downtown.
“We used to go up there to drink beer and smoke pot,” said Mickey McDaniel, a 55-year-old Ellicott City native. “We’d be out of sight, out of mind with the police and everything.”
Some local officials and police said they wouldn’t describe the bridge that sits 20 feet above Main Street as a regular hangout. But for some, after nightfall, the bridge and the wooded embankments of the rail bed have been a safe haven from discovery.
So it was for Rose Mayr and her friend Elizabeth Nass, both 19, on Monday, the night an accident took their lives.
Last year, 411 people died and 355 were injured while walking or sitting on the 140,000 miles of track across the country, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The overwhelming majority of railroad deaths each year are people who trespass on private railroad property, the FRA said.
After a train derailment just before midnight killed the two young women as they sat on the bridge, questions arose about whether enough fencing had been installed to dissuade intruders. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) said the county is working with CSX to put up fences around the bridge to help prevent similar tragedies. Freight company officials said they would await recommendations by the investigating National Transportation Safety Board.
“Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. “We neither encourage nor discourage the use of fencing.”
Instead, they present local governments with an array of options and encourage them to find one that fits.
“With that many miles of tracks in America, and every circumstance being different, these are cases where the railroad deals with each on a case-by-case basis,” said Holly Arthur of the Association of American Railroads.
But Courtney Watson, a Howard County Council member who represents part of Ellicott City, said, “No matter how much of a fence they were to install, how long of a fence, if someone wanted to get on the tracks, they’re going to be able to get on the tracks.
“I think it was a case of adventurous young women doing what they did.”
Trespassing on railroad property is illegal, and states set their own penalties. In Maryland, it’s a $25 fine and up to four weeks in jail.
The chain of events that left Mayr and Nass dead was set in motion just before 2 a.m. Sunday. Just back from a weekend camping trip and only days before the two young women would head to college — one to Virginia, the other to Delaware — Mayr received a tweet from her friend Nass.
“Once more before I leave for school . . . you, me, a handle of Burnett’s, and some form of public transportation.”
On Monday at 8:20 a.m., CSX Train U813 moved out of Grafton, W. Va. More than half a mile long, the train consisted of 80 cars filled with 9,000 tons of coal that was due at Baltimore’s docks Tuesday. It’s about 220 miles to Baltimore as the crow flies, but trains can’t handle hills, so their tracks follow the flat land. The trains often snake along beside rivers, such as along the Patapsco where it flows through Ellicott City.
It’s not easy for a trespasser to reach the bridge, which carries a single set of tracks for one of the oldest railroad lines in America. It requires a climb up the Maryland Avenue hill from Main Street. After skirting the fenced exhibits of the B&O Railroad Museum that once was the town’s railroad station, it’s possible to step onto the tracks.
From there, it’s about a five-minute stroll down the tracks to the bridge.
There’s also a less public way to get up there, out of the glare of the city’s lights. Under the bridge, a set of steps leads up to an apartment building beside the tracks. There’s a fence at the top, but it’s not insurmountable.
“You just step over, and then you would be on the tracks,” said John Cardinale, 46, who lives in nearby Oella and said he walked the tracks two weeks ago. “I was just walking around. It wasn’t a big deal.”
About nine trains pass over the bridge on an average day. The first hint that a train is coming is a vibration in the rail bed. Next comes the sound, and there’s plenty of time to step aside before a train appears, Cardinale said.
On Monday, at 4:38 p.m., Train U813 rumbled into the big switch yard in Cumberland, Md. A new crew came aboard: an engineer, a conductor and a engineer in training. They rolled out at 5:11 p.m., moving at a steady 25 miles per hour, which would put them in Ellicott City just before midnight.
The old passenger platform in Ellicott City extends across the bridge on the north side of the tracks, made safe from Main Street 20 feet below by an ornate 19th-century iron fence.
At 11:43 p.m., Mayr tweeted a photo from that platform of a deserted Main Street, its tiny shops and restaurants closed and its bars near empty.
“Looking down on old ec,” she tweeted to her friends.
They crossed the tracks, took off their shoes and dangled their bare feet from the ledge above the Ellicott City sign.
At 11:51 p.m., Mayr tweeted a photo of their feet; they were wearing jeans, and one had painted her toenails blue. The photo was accompanied with a one-word message:
Three minutes after tweeting the last photo, the sound of the oncoming freight train would have been deafening to Mayr and Nass. Then came a wrenching, screeching sound so loud that it awoke people and rattled furniture up and down Main Street.
A broken air line had set off automatic braking systems in each of the 80 cars, and the train came apart, tossing cars off the tracks and dumping 110 tons of coal from each that toppled.
Three miles away, at the Nass home off the cul de sac of Sara Beth Court, the stream of tweets that had been amusing Liz’s brother, Brendan, suddenly stopped.
The two friends were buried under 110 tons of coal.
On Friday, a small, dark-colored urn surrounded by yellow and purple flowers was set in front of the altar in the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City.
The pews were filled with more than 400 people, including Nass’s parents and two brothers, high school friends, Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority sisters and classmates from James Madison University. One group of women were dressed identically in black skirts and salmon-colored T-shirts with the sorority’s Greek letters in gold.
“Elizabeth and Rose were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that doesn’t seem to be a satisfying answer,” Monsignor John A. Dietzenbach said at the funeral for Nass.
The parents of Rose Mayr were there. The funeral for their daughter will be held Saturday.
Malu Banuelos, Ted Trautman, Aaron Leitko and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.