WASHINGTON — Days before they were due back at college, two friends on a midnight stroll across a train trestle in Ellicott City, Md., died in a freak accident in which a passing freight train derailed, dumping thousands of tons of coal down from the raised tracks.
The deaths of Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, both 19, a few minutes after midnight Tuesday provided investigators with more questions than answers.
Why were they on a single-track rail bridge at the bottom of the town's quaint Main Street? Didn't they hear the approaching 90-car train that stretched for more than half a mile behind two locomotives? Were they struck by the train? Did they die under the avalanche of coal as more than 20 cars toppled on their side?
"These accidents happen very quickly," said Jim Southworth, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. "They don't take much time at all, but the investigations take a great deal of time."
Some of the mystery will be resolved by available evidence. Southworth will review video from a camera mounted on the lead engine and will interview the three-member train crew.
In statements taken by police, the crew members said they never saw the two women.
Just before they died, Nass posted to Twitter: "Drinking on top of the Ellicott City sign with (Rose)."
It is unclear whether the two women got up too late when they heard the train. But as the engines crossed the bridge, past the railroad station and near a sharp curve to the left, a brake line that connects each car to the next severed, and an automatic system began slamming on the brakes on each of the cars.
The cars began to derail to the left, spilling their coal. Some came to rest on their side, others tumbled from the bridge or down the embankments on either side.