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Train in fatal Baltimore derailment was going at approved speed

August 22, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson

A coal train that derailed early Tuesday morning outside Baltimore had an engineer-in-training at the controls and was following speed guidelines before the fatal crash, officials said Wednesday.

Amid the wreckage of 21 derailed cars in Ellicott City, Md., investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board examined track alignment, maintenance records and data from the train’s recording device to determine whether two young women killed in the accident were a factor in the crash.

As the train crossed the bridge, some of the cars twisted off the tracks and tipped toward the two 19-year-olds, who were sitting on a bridge a few feet from the tracks, the Howard County Police Department told The Times. The 3,000-foot-long train was carrying 9,000 tons of coal.

“The coal poured out of the cars onto the girls who were sitting on the edge of the bridge,” police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said in an interview. “That is where their bodies were found.”

The victims have been identified as Elizabeth Conway Nass and Rose Mayr, both of Ellicott City. Nass was studying at James Madison University in Virginia and Mayr attended the University of Delaware, police said.

Some of the derailed cars landed in a heap off the tracks. Others fell off the railroad bridge, which spans the historic city’s Main Street, and onto vehicles in a county-owned parking lot underneath.

The cause of the accident will not be officially known until the NTSB finishes its investigation, which could take a year, spokesman Eric Weiss said. The federal agency will release a report that includes an analysis of the probable cause and safety recommendations.

The CSX coal train was heading east on some of the oldest rail lines in the country when it derailed. The emergency brakes were applied automatically -- not by the three crew members on board -- around midnight Tuesday, investigators said.  

All but three of the 21 derailed cars were removed from the site Wednesday afternoon and hauled away, Weiss said. Neither locomotive derailed. The three remaining cars were still being examined and photographed.

Clearing the site is key to the progress of NTSB investigators, who will reconstruct the accident in a nearby parking lot, Weiss said.

“It’s a very, very tight space, and it’s a historic area up against a river,” Weiss said. “It’s sort of like trying to maneuver around on an aircraft carrier.”

The tracks are near the quaint downtown of Ellicott City, a quiet, tree-lined community dotted with antique stores and tea shops.

The rail line was completed in 1830 and crosses over Main Street in the historic district. Now known as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum: Ellicott City Station, the facility was the original end point of the first 13 miles of commercial railway in the nation. 

Before their deaths, Mayr had tweeted a photograph of the deserted Main Street in Ellicott City with the caption “looking down on old ec…” Nass yweeted, “Drinking on top of the Ellicott City sign.”

The final photograph showed the girls’ legs, in jeans and bare feet, dangling above Ellicott City’s Main Street.

The caption read: “Levitating.”

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laura.nelson@latimes.com

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