ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – A train hauling coal derailed on a bridge in this city's historic district, killing two college students who had been drinking together and hanging out on the tracks. Nearly two dozen railroad cars flipped over, including some that fell onto vehicles in a parking lot below the bridge, officials said.
The students, both 19-year-old women, posted photos and comments from what appeared to be the bridge shortly before the train derailed around midnight Monday, according to Twitter feeds with the same names as the victims.
"Looking down on old ec," wrote Rose Louese Mayra, who posted an image of downtown Ellicott City.
Mayr was a student at the University of Delaware. She was killed along with her friend, Elizabeth Conway Nass, Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said. Nass attended James Madison University in Virginia.
"Drinking on top of the Ellicott City sign with (at)r0se--petals," wrote Nass, using her friend's Twitter name.
Another photo Mayr posted showed what appeared to be two women's legs dangling from a bridge. "Levitating," Mayr wrote.
Ellicott City is a picturesque small town where there are several bars, and gift and antique shops in converted old buildings. The railroad runs across Main Street in Ellicott City, about 13 miles west of Baltimore.
A person who answered the telephone at Nass' home declined to comment as did a family member who answered the phone at a number listed for the Mayr family.
Two train operators were not harmed. Officials had to use cranes to remove some of the railroad cars.
"Many of those train cars fell onto automobiles, literally fell onto automobiles with the coal," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said. "So you have massive piles of coal and heavy train cars on top of automobiles."
Residents looked at the damage Tuesday morning and checked to see if their cars, or their friends' cars, had been damaged. Several gray train cars were still on the bridge while others could be seen derailed farther down the rail line. A number of cars were in a wooded area of the train track that runs along the Patapsco River.
Benjamin Noppenberger lives downtown and said he was getting ready for bed when he heard the derailment. He said he and his wife thought it sounded like gunshots and waited about 10 minutes to go outside. "We could see all the cars that fell over. I just saw catastrophe," he said.
Jill Farrell, a 35-year-old assistant professor who lives across the street from the tracks, said she heard what sounded liked squealing brakes and then a huge crash.
"It actually sounded like trains went off the tracks, and then silence," she said.
The tracks follow the route of the nation's first commercial railroad between Baltimore and Ellicott City, completed by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1830.
Young people often party in the nearby parking lot and often hang out on the tracks, despite fences around the area.
"It's just sort of a magnet for teenage high jinks," said Shelly Wygant of the Howard County Historical Society.
Jim Southworth, investigator in charge for the NTSB, declined to speculate on a possible cause. He said the train was going about 25 miles per hour and was equipped with video recording devices that investigators will review to help them determine what happened.
Southworth said the train had two locomotives, was 3,000-feet-long and weighed 9,000 tons.
About 100 pounds of coal spilled into a tributary of the Patapsco River, a major Maryland waterway that parallels the tracks, said Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson. He said much more coal lay along the edge of the tributary, raising concerns it could boost the acidity of the water or threaten aquatic life.
CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said that the train was traveling from Grafton, W.Va., to Baltimore.