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Danger on the Tracks: Ellicott City Debates a Longtime Practice

Residents have been hanging out on train tracks in Ellicott City for years. Will a fatal derailment change that?

Nineteen-year-olds were sitting on the bridge over Ellicott City with their backs to the Historic District just after midnight on Tuesday when an 80-car CSX freight train passed behind them.

. Nass and Mayr were buried in coal, according to Howard County Police, and the two friends died of “compressional asphyxia;” they suffocated.

The next day, Gina Rower brought three of her kids to a where they placed roses and tied ribbons to commemorate the two young women who died.

When asked about the prevalence of kids on the tracks, Rower scrunched her face.

“I don’t know," she said, "Is it bad to say ‘I’d go back up there?' ... It is what it is.”

Rower is not a teenager; this wasn’t a case of ‘kids will be kids.’ She noted that if you look up Ellicott City hiking trails online, “a lot of them go right on the tracks.” 

The bridge where Mayr and Nass sat is property of CSX. When asked if the girls were “trespassing,” CSX spokesman Gary Sease would not comment.  

“Certainly that’s our property,” he said in an unrelated conversation, “And our jurisdiction.” 

Trespassing or not, kids hanging out on the tracks is nothing new. 

“I’ve lived here 42 years, and I used to go up there all the time,” said Mickey McDaniel.

“We used to put pennies up there on the tracks so the trains could flatten them,” he said. And when he got to be a little older – about the age of Mayr and Nass – “We would sit there and drink.”

A Twitter user named Elizabeth Nass (@LizNassty) tweeted at 10:40 p.m. Monday night that she was “,” which sits under the train tracks that cross Main Street, with @r0se_petals, a Twitter user named Rose Mayr.

McDaniel and his wife, Tina McDaniel, had been sitting in their car in the parking lot where seven or eight of the train cars fell, burying vehicles in coal.

“We were sitting in our car in the lot talking at about 8 p.m.,” he said. “Imagine if we had been a few hours later,” she added. 

Keeping people off of the tracks is no easy feat 

“Of course, the U.S. rail system was built to maximize access for shippers and farmers and anyone who wanted to ship goods on the railroad,” Sease said. Maintaining that access while maximizing safety is a delicate balancing act for CSX officials and local public safety authorities.

At a press conference Wednesday, County Executive Ken Ulman said that at that point, his first priority was as a key road into the shopping district – Main Street – was closed at the Baltimore County line.

“My biggest concern overall,” he said Wednesday afternoon, “is just getting this place back open. After that happens … if there are ways that we can do a better job in the future, that’s what we need to look at." 

Later that afternoon he met with Howard County Police and CSX officials, according to Sease. They talked about “all the major topics of concerns: street closures, lengths of time and then the community concerns that we’ve been dealing with.”

What do you think can be done to keep people off the tracks? Tell us in the comments.

County Councilperson Courtney Watson, whose district includes Main Street, said that the county will have to review issues of access to the tracks and determine whether it meets CSX’s standards for safety. 

But she echoed what many Ellicott City residents have said in the community discussion following the derailment. “The reality is that if people want to get on the tracks, they’re going to be able to do it.” The county also needs to educate people – particularly kids, she said – that railways are not a safe place to be.

It comes as no surprise, however, that safety does not seem to be the top priority for kids hanging on the tracks. 

Teenagers have always gone to the tracks, which meander through a densly wooded area along the Patapsco River, for drugs, drinking, sex; “The whole nine yards,” according to Brittany Swec. The 21-year-old graduated from one year before Nass and Mayr, and spoke with Patch at a held at the high school Tuesday night.

When asked if the deaths would stop kids from hanging out near the tracks, Swec, standing with her parents, didn’t miss a beat.

“No. Not at all.”

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BP August 24, 2012 at 11:24 AM
What part of if the trained flopped the other way the train museum would have went bye-bye does the media not understand? What part of if the coal hit the girls in the back sitting where they were supposed to be sitting the girls would have went into the street does the media not understand? What part of f the girls were these phonies say they would have been further away than a vehicle stopped at a crossing or passengers at train stations that get their tongues knocked off because they can get so close to the tracks? CSX Corp.’s CEO Michael Ward was among executives that saved the most due to the Bush-era tax cuts, according to a study by the Institute for Policy Studies. The Institute’s study focused on companies in the U.S. that pay their CEOs more than they pay in taxes. Jacksonville-based CSX did not make that list, but it did make the list for specific executives that saved the most because of the tax cuts for those with incomes above $250,000. Ward’s taxable compensation in 2011 was $28.3 million and he saves $1.29 million due to the tax cuts, according to the study.
BP August 24, 2012 at 11:33 AM
...Nass and Mayr were buried in coal, according to Howard County Police...WHO manned the coal shovels between 12:00 and 2:05 AM and where did the shovels come from? HOW where the girls located when nobody knew they were up there? Where the bodies moved to show trespassing? Some things don't fit ---Like the train engine facing backwards in the video.
eric August 24, 2012 at 12:19 PM
You wont stop the determined but, you could deter the vagrants and tourist who like to wander around the tracks and take pictures on the weekends. Continue the fence along the museum all the way to the end of the parking lot (Mulligans Hill) and close up the huge access to the tracks.
Hollis Karr Burl August 24, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Leave things as they are. I think that spending money on educational campaigns or to only partially fence off the tracks is silly. It's akin to ridiculous warning labels on everything these days -- "may cause bodily harm or death". Yeah, that's just about everything in life. These poor girls were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's it. So are people who are harmed or killed in every way, every day. That's life.
Debbie B. August 24, 2012 at 02:57 PM
I lived in Ellicott City my entire life. Every child, teen and adult that lived there have been on the tracks. Most of us sat with our feet dangling down and just loved being kids in EC. Most of us were not doing drugs, having sex and drinking. We were having fun and tried to stay safe.
Debbie B. August 24, 2012 at 03:57 PM
The girls were having innocent fun.
Terri McCulley Hicks August 24, 2012 at 04:54 PM
Totally agree.
Terri McCulley Hicks August 24, 2012 at 06:14 PM
I am sick of these politicians, news media and concerned citizens who DON'T live in Ellicott City saying they need a Safety Task Force to investigate how safe this area is. Recently listening "AGAIN" to family members who grew up and live in E.C telling stories about the train depot and its role in American History only reaffirms that this is a tragic accident but just that... AN ACCIDENT. Can you imagine the death and devastation if the train had come into the Ellicott City side? When I was younger the drinking age was 18 yrs old. We spent time around those tracks but not one time did I sit on that bridge if I was drinking. That was my choice. People visit this area, sightsee, party, and take photos along these tracks. Have for hundreds of years. We did the flat penny on the track thing. It’s been operating since 1830 and this is the first major situation. CSX should spend whatever making the TRACKS themselves safe but the area itself should not have ANY TAX or COUNTY money put into making it quote... SAFER!!! Sadly, these deaths were about wrong place at wrong time and choices. They were 19 yrs old and the drinking age is 21. Anyone who thinks by building a barrier around this area it will keep people out, are thinking about nothing but making News.
mk August 24, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Freight trains commonly have a second engine facing backwards right behind the lead engine. This lets them pick up a new load of cars at their destination without turning around.. The backwards engine becomes the new forward facing front engine on the return trip, and they just attach new cars the engine that was the front, which is now "backwards". Passenger trains are similar, but they typically put the backwards engine on the opposite end of the train, as the cars aren't removed from the train when they get unloaded. The crew just gets out, walks to the other end, hops in and drives the other way. As for noticing the girls, well, read more coverage and put the pieces together. I can't really explain it without being tasteless and gruesome.
Flora August 24, 2012 at 08:38 PM
Innocent fun? I don't think so. They were drinking underage and trespassing on railroad property. What they were doing was engaging in risky behavior.  The girls were responsible for their own behavior. Risky behavior can get people into trouble. The train derailment IS an accident. What is sad is the loss of life, and what their families are going through. The girls must have heard the train. Just because everyone goes on the bridge and the tracks does not make it a good idea, nor does it mean it is safe. It is not.
BP August 24, 2012 at 08:45 PM
MK --... I can't really explain it without being tasteless and gruesome... The questions ANSWERS wouldn't be tasteless and gruesome unless weird things went on. WHO manned the coal shovels between 12:00 and 2:05 AM and Where did the shovels come from? HOW where the girls located when nobody knew they were up there? I've read articles on train killings for 14 years and KNOW the railroads wouldn't blink an eye moving victims to make the settlement cheaper.
BP August 24, 2012 at 08:51 PM
10 trains a day the inventory says --- Means the tracks are open like 23 hours a day. 25 mph train speeds the inventory says ---- Means a passenger train (converted tour bus) could run at least 35 mph. Why not fix it with a passenger station? ---Whoops there's one already there.
PJ/Maryland August 24, 2012 at 09:20 PM
Good article, Brandie. As Mickey McDaniel implied, he and his wife would likely have died if they had been in the parking lot when the train derailed. Unless we plan to fence off everything within 100 feet of any train tracks, I don't think there's a lot that can be done. I hope CSX will put policies in place to prevent future derailments. I worry about something more toxic than coal getting spilled all over Main Street. Another thought: if the drinking age were still 18, Nass and Mayr would have been drinking in a nice safe pub instead of on the railroad bridge.
josh mason August 24, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Nothing is going to keep people from walking those tracks, whether it is a physical barrier or law enforcement citing people for trespassing. I, and most everyone I know, have spent countless hours walking those tracks. There is no deep conspiracy or cover up, just a tragic accident. I would also like to say that, in my opinion, it is innocent fun. I can't understand peoples focus on the minor technicality that these girls were trespassing and/or drinking under age (that is innocent fun for a legal adult who is capable of understanding the risks of their behavior). They had nothing to do with the derailment, and if they were sober and standing in lot B, the outcome would have been the same. The focus shouldn't be on keeping people away from the tracks, but on preventing future accidents.
BP August 24, 2012 at 10:15 PM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MoSURFg4Rs Hmmmm Busted --- Speeding train ---un-cut right of ways ---no restriction signs. You lawyers suing CSX in this one should have no problem making the worms squirm. No way the train crew could have seen anyone here doing the train coming the other way thing.
Gloie Wall August 24, 2012 at 10:22 PM
You just can't close off all railroad tracks. When I was in junior high I crossed different railroad tracks in Pikesville at least half of the time I walked to school--it was closer that way. We were very careful, I didn't know anyone who got hurt. But I also know my parents didn't know my neighbors taught me the shortcut of crossing the tracks.
Craig H. August 25, 2012 at 05:42 PM
I used to work for CSX. Their very own safety rule prohibited us from standing within 30 ft of a track as a train passed. This was not only to protect us in case of a derailment, but also from things that could be dangling off the sides of rail cars (like steel strapping that came loose), which can be as deadly to passerby as a derailment. The YouTube video of a CSX train at the EC station (in the above comment) may have been filmed from public property, but, personally, there is no way I would stand that close to a moving train. To this day, I purposely stop well short of the crossing gate if I'm first in line at a grade crossing, I stay well away from the edge of the track as a train passes if I'm hiking in Patapsco State Park, and I don't allow my family to sit at the Harper's Ferry passenger station as a train passes, even though it is perfectly legal to do so and even though I see many other people (including families with kids) doing it. A train is the only mode of transportation that is easy to avoid: it travels on a fixed path; it can't steer into you. You're probably safer standing next to a track than sitting in your broken down car on the shoulder of I-95. However, I choose to not increase my risk exposure by placing myself unnecessarily close to the track. One in a million happens every day, as we unfortunately witnessed in this accident.
Terri McCulley Hicks August 25, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Agree mostly Josh but Come on. If they were sober and not taking chances that time of night maybe they would have been at a friends home spending the night safely drinking. Maybe they would have decided to go to the movies. Maybe they would have been in one of the resturants eating. Woulda...shoulda...coulda...Drinking age is 21. The "innocent act" of drinking is always an innocent until something happens. Alcohol impairs judgement. Any chance when they left E.C they were calling someone to come get them, calling a cab or maybe drinking and driving? Its all tragic but to me alcohol played a part in judgement and it could have all ended differently if they were on the road driving home. Not everything has to be regulated, micromanaged for safety or restricted. You might not be able to prevent all accidents but you can use common sense and put things in place to prevent most of them. Figure out what happened to the tracks for the derailment to happened. We already know why the girls died. Saying prayers for thier families.
BP August 25, 2012 at 08:59 PM
The film is the B @ O station Ellicott which at the end has it marked where the girls were supposedly sitting which would be further away from the tracks than people sitting at the train depot.The stairway looks like the stairs to get to upstairs apartments there. The 2x4 wooden railing would have been put in by the building owner and not CSX who could care less. The film at the end also shows CSX hasn't trimmed the brush in years and the train crew couldn't see nothing approaching the bridge. WHO knew the girls where there? WHY didn't the coal knock the girls off the ledge that any computer simulation would prove would have been what happened? So where is the slow order through this museum since things that could be dangling off the sides of rail cars (like steel strapping that came loose), which can be as deadly to passerby as a derailment. At all passenger stations with platforms 6 inches out of the kill zone the freight trains fly through?
mk August 25, 2012 at 11:47 PM
Where did you hear nobody knew they were up there? The news coverage suggest their presence was immediately noticed when police arrived. (They were not entirely buried) If they moved the victims, they moved them to a pretty stupid place, as the current evidence at least suggests the railroad is at fault. Sure the analysis isn't in, but the girls were found sitting away from the tracks, and no part of the train ever touched them, just the coal. The operators never saw them, and the train automatically triggered its brakes due to some kind of fault or derailment. This entirely suggests the girls had nothing to do with the derailment. Either track issues derailed the train, triggering the brakes, or a brake line failed, triggering the brakes and eventually the derailment. The exact cause unknown until NTSB is done, but it's pretty obvious so far that the train would have derailed without them anywhere nearby. If they were trying to cover things up, they did a patently stupid job of it.
BP August 26, 2012 at 12:36 AM
Well MK the news coverage suggests nothing except crime evidence was illegally leaked to some railroad planted media. Where is the girls permission to put these personal tweets on the WWW?? The cops wouldn't have a clue on what was top of a bridge 20 feet above their heads unless they had special x-ray eyes. Now girls killed on bridge ---railroad bridge vs. girls killed in public parking lot ---MILLIONS difference. Ask Canadian National Railway Company how much people killed OFF railroad property costs in a derailment.

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