Why were they on a single-track rail bridge at the bottom of the town’s quaint Main Street? Didn’t they hear the approaching 90-car train that stretched for more than half a mile behind two locomotives? Were they struck by the train? Did they die under the avalanche of coal as more than 20 cars toppled on their side?
“These accidents happen very quickly,” said Jim Southworth, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. “They don’t take much time at all, but the investigations take a great deal of time.”
Some of the mystery will be resolved by available evidence. Southworth will review video from a camera mounted on the lead engine and will interview the three-member train crew.
In statements taken by police, the crew members said they never saw the two women as the train passed by.
On-board data recorders — similar to the devices on commercial airplanes — will provide information that will reveal the sequence of events and could point to a cause. An NTSB track expert was summoned from Chicago to examine the rail bed for abnormalities.
Why the two women skirted the town’s old flagstone railroad station for a walk on the tracks at midnight may be an impossible question to answer.
“I’ve never seen anyone on the bridge in the three years I’ve lived here,” said Lauren Ward, 23, who lives 75 yards up Main Street in a third-floor walk-up above LaLa’s ice cream parlor. “Apparently they were drinking. There are seven bars within walking distance.”
Just before they died, Nass posted to Twitter: “Drinking on top of the Ellicott City sign with [Rose].”
The rail line that links the coal fields of West Virginia to Baltimore is expected to be closed for days. The business of cleaning up thousands of tons of coal, righting the toppled train cars and restoring service is complicated by two factors. The single track means there is no adjacent track that could serve as a platform for rail cranes that could upright the cars.
In addition, more than a dozen phone, electric and cable lines that run along tall poles are at right angles over the crash site, causing a dicey problem for the use of helicopters from above or large cranes from below.
As investigators began to figure out what went wrong, this much was known:
As midnight neared on narrow Main Street in the historic section of Ellicott City, a Monday night atmosphere had invoked its relative quiet on the block lined with shops that sell antiques, ice cream and tourist-oriented knickknacks. The restaurants were closed; a few of the bars remained open.
From the west, the long train that had been loaded with coal in Grafton, W.Va., rumbled toward town at about 25 mph, pulled by CSX Engine 267 in the lead coupled to CSX Engine 4579 and a long trail of gray coal cars.