23 Aug 2014
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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?

Danger on the Tracks: Ellicott City Debates a Longtime Practice Danger on the Tracks: Ellicott City Debates a Longtime Practice Danger on the Tracks: Ellicott City Debates a Longtime Practice Danger on the Tracks: Ellicott City Debates a Longtime Practice Danger on the Tracks: Ellicott City Debates a Longtime Practice

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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