Cause of death determined in Ellicott City train derailment deaths

Two college girls died of asphyxiation; deaths ruled accidental

  • Elizabeth Conway Nass
Elizabeth Conway Nass (Mt. Hebron Yearbook photo/2010 )
August 23, 2012|By Mary Gail Hare and Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Loved ones and friends prepared to say goodbye to the two young women who perished in a train derailment in Ellicott City as the first of the viewings began Thursday evening.

Cars lined both sides of the quiet residential street leading up to the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City for the viewing for Elizabeth Conway Nass. At 6 p.m., about 100 people stood queued down a brick stairway of the Roman Catholic church from a sprawling parking lot where most of the spots were filled.

The viewing came the same day the state medical examiner ruled the deaths of Nass and Rose Louese Mayr were accidental. The 19-year-old Ellicott City residents died Tuesday of "compressional asphyxia," meaning they were unable to breathe as powdered coal spilling from the derailed cars crushed their bodies, authorities ruled.

The longtime friends were seated on a railroad bridge about 20 feet above Main Street with their backs to the tracks when the CSX train's open-air coal cars began passing a few feet behind them just after midnight Tuesday. Residents familiar with the bridge said the gravel-covered spot left the young women little room to flee when the train derailed. Their bodies were found still seated on the bridge, police said.

Police said they are not releasing other details from the autopsies.

Services for Nass are at 11 a.m. Friday at the Church of the Resurrection at 3155 Paulskirk Drive in Ellicott City. Services for Mayr will be held 11 a.m. Saturday at Bethany United Methodist Church at 2875 Bethany Lane in Ellicott City.

CSX fixed the rail line and ran its first freight train since the accident over that stretch of track at about 4 p.m. Thursday, said Gary Sease, a spokesman for the Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad.

CSX crews would remain at the site for several more days to clean up coal that spilled in the derailment, Sease said. "Our commitment is to have everything back to normal in Ellicott City before we depart."

Investigators have yet to determine what caused the derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the probe, did not hold a briefing Thursday.

NTSB officials said Wednesday that the investigation would encompass the ease of access to the tracks by unauthorized people, among other issues. Several local residents and merchants interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they frequently see young people and adults on the railroad's property.

According to a check of NTSB records, the agency has had little to say about the issue of trespassing on the rails in recent decades, even though hundreds are killed each year while on railroad property without authorization.

The agency raised the issue with the Federal Rail Administration in the 1970s after investigating the electrocution of a boy in a Washington rail yard. The board recommended that the FRA issue regulations requiring railroads to erect fences or take other measures to keep trespassers off the tracks.

In 1984, the FRA declined to publish rules after a study failed to show concentrations of fatalities that would justify fencing. Instead, it recommended stepped-up educational programs to warn people of the dangers of intruding on railroad rights-of-way, along with some fencing along the Amtrak Northeast Corridor.

The NTSB dropped the matter in 1984, commending the FRA's efforts. It apparently has not revisited the issue since then.

Eric Weiss, an NTSB spokesman, said there hasn't been much new to look into over the past 27 years. "The technology has not changed much since the 19th century," he said.

The railroad industry funds the national nonprofit Operation Lifesaver to educate the public about the dangers of trespassing on tracks and of grade crossings, where roads cross rail lines.

Late Thursday, Ellicott City's Main Street remained closed to through traffic from Old Columbia Pike to the Patapsco River as crews continued the cleanup of the derailment site. The pavement near the railroad remained covered with coal dust.

The cleanup crew was set to work through the night, and the road was expected to be closed at least until Friday morning, said David Nitkin, an aide to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

"The road will remain closed until all coal removal operations are complete," Nitkin said.

County officials would talk with CSX representatives on Friday morning about the progress of the cleanup and perhaps be able then to say when the street would reopen, he said.

The coal removal has taken its toll on Main Street and Maryland Avenue, where some road surfaces, curbs, signals, walls and fences have been damaged by heavy equipment, Nitkin said. Once the road is reopened to traffic, some lanes likely will be shut down as repairs are made — at CSX's expense.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.