Two derailments, one tragedy

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Once in a while, an incident gets your attention in unsettling ways. That happened the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 21, when a CSX coal train derailed in Ellicott City, Md. Two young women lost their lives. They were just days from returning to college, one of them to a school I attended.

I’m pretty certain I crossed paths with CSX train U813 on its way east from Grafton, W.Va. I was returning from a weekend conference in Ohio, and decided Monday to follow the original B&O route from Wheeling, W.Va. (then part of Virginia), to Cumberland, Md. One of the coal trains I saw had to have been U813.

And I ran similar trains myself through Ellicott City 30 years ago. I can visualize the eastbound curve to the left, the constricted right-of-way, then in quick succession the short bridges over Main Street and Tiber Creek, the old stone station, and the hulking old mill across the Patapsco River. Ordinarily, a coal train would slip through Ellicott City in a few minutes and barely get noticed.

Tuesday, Aug. 21 was no ordinary day. A little after midnight, U813 went into emergency as the head end passed the station (now part of the B&O Railroad Museum). Something happened not far back in the train that sent loaded coal cars over the retaining wall to the north, just missing an old stone house. In fact, the derailment didn’t touch any of the historic structures of the one-time mill town.

The early, overnight photos showed a nightmarish scene that was impossible to make sense of. Later helicopter and telephoto shots suggested an unusual, although plausible, sequence to the disaster. Of course, the National Transportation Safety Board has the final word.

It looks like the crew was running by the book. NTSB said the crew’s speed was 25 mph, just what the timetable authorizes. They apparently felt nothing out of the ordinary until the air went down. My guess is that they were in light dynamic with the slack lightly bunched, anticipating a leisurely roll downhill to the Curtis Bay Coal Pier yards, about 15 miles east.

The initial derailment and separation seems to have occurred 10 to 15 cars from the head end, and quickly brought that part of the train to a halt. Then two things happened. The mass and inertia of 60 or so loaded cars to the rear piled up more cars in a classic “scissors” pattern, spilling hundreds of tons of coal and crushing automobiles in the parking lot below. Fortunately, no one was there at the moment.

This is where things turned both ironic and tragic. When the train went into emergency at the point of initial derailment, the brakes would have quickly set on the front of the train still in motion — but not the locomotives. That is a safety feature intended to let the mass of the engines pull the front of a separated train a little further down the tracks, in hopes that the front end would avoid getting smacked by the hind end “running in.”

This is, of course, speculation. But there was just enough of a curve, and the locomotives may have had enough inertia, to pull the loaded cars over and spill their contents to the north of the track. No matter whether the rollover propagated from back to front or vice versa, the first 10 cars remained coupled and seemed to be stretched. The head end looked like a classic “stringline” derailment, and an inadvertent demonstration of just how robust and effective today’s shelf couplers can be.

And a cascade of coal from one of those cars caught the two young women sitting on the edge of the bridge over Main Street. They didn’t have a chance and died of “compressional asphyxia.”

The CSX crew that hustled to help them, and the many first responders, will carry ghastly memories for the rest of their lives. Because this happened in a suburb of both Baltimore and Washington during the August slow-news cycle, it became a high-profile incident with all sorts of potentially unpredictable consequences for the industry.

The proximate cause will likely be something mundane — a rail defect, broken wheel, or some other failure that is difficult to anticipate and happens almost at random. Accidents caused by big trucks kill thousands of people each year, but we accept those casualties as a perverse “cost of mobility.” This might be different.

In a year or so, the NTSB will issue its findings and likely have a definitive cause and further recommendations. No one can predict what the outcomes might be. But this one will haunt me for a long time to come.

  • Probably would have dumped coal onto those poor girls anyway, even if the loco's brakes had applied at point of big-hole.  Just hope no one sues CSX for deaths.

  • Amazing how many accounts of this accident I've read without one mentioning the all-important word describing the girls' action......TRESPASSING.

  • The victims were trespassing and the trespassing was misguided and just plain wrong.  But for all of that the deaths of these two young people are a sad loss.  

  • Senseless. yes.  Just as senseless as   2 UP engineers and 1 conductor killed in Head on collision near Guymon,OK around  4 th of July of this year. (This would be one to write about, because it apperantly has been quieted)

  • @midwest I've been wondering about that OK wreck too. Without knowing the cause, there has to be at least a suspicion that fatigue issues could be a contributing factor.

  • Yes, this was a classic case of trespassing with the added fact that setting on a bridge several feet above a highway with your feet dangling in mid air is not very smart. Classic statement in mountaineer climbing cases is always rope up and belay when a fall can result in a death, A fall off of a railroad bridge to the pavement could be fatal. Now we also have two cases this past month in Phildelphia where a person climbed on a Septa car and contacted the catenary, and another person wondered onto the tracks and contacted the third rail. Somehow, these "accidents" become the fault of the railroad and result in lawsuits and major settlements. As an electrical engineer, I remember the first electrician, I worked for years ago said  "I do not fear electricity but I respect it." The lay people have to learn to respect the current, as I do: with a 10 foot pole, rubber gloves or Arc-resistant clothing.  Railroads also need to be respected, Model railroads are toys, real railroads are not.

  • Yes just a bad case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time but remember as you stated hiway incidents receive much less press because it is more common place than rail

  • Mr. Hankey..... I have no axe to grind, but I take issue with your statement "accidents CAUSED by big trucks kill thousands of people each year....." If you are going to make such a statement, then include ALL of the facts, one very pertinent one being that 80% of truck accidents are caused by motorists in 4-wheelers. And no, I am NOT a truck driver......

  • The Press never brings up the TRESPASSING issue when people are killed on railroad property nor do the shyster lawyers when the lawsuits are filed against any railroad company.  

    Operation Lifesaver has been around long enough that every American should now be aware that hanging around railroads, be it on the right of way, bridges or tunnels, is not only dangerous but against the law as well.  Grabbing a milkshake at a 24/7 fast food resturant is a lot safer and not trespassing on railroad property where trains are subject to run 24/7 as well!

    While the loss of two lives is tragic, the girls should have been educated into what the word trespassing means.  Sadly, now it's too late....

    Joe Toth

  • I agree that there is rarely any mention of Trespassing in accounts like these where Injury and/or Death has occurred due to someone trespassing on Railroad Property/Right of Way.

    I feel sorry for the Families of the two Girls who were killed and for the First Responders who had to dig them out and the condition of the girls bodies they had to see and for the Train Crew also who will have to live with this for the rest of their life's.

    Those two girls could just have easily have been a painting graffiti, instead of just two people sitting in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time.

    Op Lifesaver does do good work,it needs to get its message out more to the public and National Networks,Local TV Stations and Cable Networks need to air these messages more often especially in the afternoons and during Prime Time as Public Service Announcements.

    I wondering as another Member of the Community has said here if some Reverse Ambulance Chaser(you see their Adds on TV all the time) has not come out of the woodwork to try and whip up a Law Suit against CSX for the death of the two Girls.(I hope not.)

    Just as it has been said here the girls could have been killed by falling off of the bridge or in a car that was crushed under the weight of the coal or from walking out from under that bridge just as the coal cars derailed and spilled their load onto the roadway below.

    In my part of N.H., in my home town we have tracks that pass through here that used to belong to the B&M R.R. along with a restored Depot,but are now part of the Hobo R.R. that runs from Meridith to Lincoln,NH,which is a Tour Railroad with no freight traffic so accidents like this one do not occur .

    But just the same being on a Railway Right of Way is not a Good Idea at all even if the Trains only run at certain times and at slow speeds you still don't walk on or near the tracks unless you have reason/permission to be there and you have be alert at all times(No using a Cell Phone,Texting or a iPod type of Music Player) with your head on swivel (just like Deck Hands on an Aircraft Carrier) so that you can hear the Horn and /or Bell of an approaching Train and get out of the way and away from Danger,because you never know when a train might come.

    Another way fro Op Lifesaver to get their message out would be to have their Train Car on Railways like this one at special events or maybe a Modified Caboose could roads like these if a coach is not useable or available to come out for a presentation or send Videos out to Local Access Stations for Broadcast.

    As the sayings go,"Prevention is the Best Medicine",  An ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure" and 'The Life You Save My Be Your Own".

    All in all if you don't belong there stay away from there you'll live longer if you do,if want to Train Watch do it from Public Land or Viewing Platform and pay attention to your surroundings at all times!

    I am not a Railroader or a safety person,just someone who has been around Trains most of my life(grew up in the Boston area),used to be a volunteer on a Local Public Access Cable TV Station and I am a subscriber to Trains Magazine which is a very wonderful and well put together publication, so my thoughts are my own views not of someone in the Rail Industry.

  • Granted they were trespassing, but has anyone asked, "Why were two young women sitting on a railroad bridge (overpass?) just after midnight?"  Doesn't sound to me like a typical place to "hang out".

  • Leaving aside the fact that I would never sit on a railroad bridge, I can very easily imagine the two college girls sitting there. The only other place they would be is in their own homes with their parents. With both going back to college in a few days neither is likely to rent an apartment near by, any male and females in their age group are likely not college material and have married or are working. The bridge afforded a degree of privacy, the nearby creek a little soothing background noise, the elevated position a bit of a view and possibly a little bit of a cool breeze on a warm evening.  I live in a small town of less than 2000 people and you see the young people who are college material leave, if they come back at all it is when they reach middle age and have families. The only young people who would socially fit in with these girls in a town the size of mine are some of the school teachers fresh out of college, and even amongst them, most are married.

Two derailments, one tragedy