Monday, August 17, 2015

"Three years ago the unthinkable happened... "

It was shortly before midnight, Monday, August 20, 2012. Two 19 year old girls sat on the railroad bridge, feet dangling over Main Street, their backs to the railroad tracks several feet away. They tweeted, "Looking down on old EC." The high school friends would soon be returning to their respective colleges and they were doing what kids in Ellicott City have allegedly done for years, hanging out on the historic trestle on a warm summer night. Then the unthinkable happened.

A fully loaded eastbound coal train rounded the bend and descended into town. The first ten cars rumbled past the girls before something went tragically wrong. A string of hoppers derailed, tipping over and burying the pair instantly.

The CSX eastbound train had originated in Grafton, WV and was comprised of 80 fully loaded hoppers pulled by two locomotives. Total weight was estimated at 9,000 tons.

The first 21 cars of the train derailed in the heart of downtown at the historic bridge over Main Street. The girls were in a restricted area accessible by climbing a low fence.

All reports confirm that the train was traveling at the 25 MPH speed limit entering town.

The cost in property damage and clean-up was estimated at $1.9 million, but the emotional loss for the close-knit community can never be determined.  (Photo by John Teichmoeller)

It was initially speculated that a retaining wall had slowly been giving way allowing the track above to go out of gauge, but a year-long investigation by the NTSB found that a rail fractured several hundred feet from the trestle caused by the "gradual deterioration of the rail-head surface" ... otherwise known as metal fatigue.             (Photo by John Teichmoeller)

As a regular visitor to this town my entire life, the tragedy felt weirdly personal, even from 200 miles away. I have stood in that general area many times with my grandfather and just a year earlier with my then-17 year old daughter as part of a college tour to Washington DC. How do those most affected by this, cope with their loss and grasp the random nature of such a bizarrely fateful event?

As modelers, it points to a strange reality that when we depict a prototype and a period, we may be dabbling in a story whose innocence will be stolen forever at a later date. It's going to be challenging to depict the Ellicott City bridge at Main Street circa 1960. I will know something about its future that I would prefer not to know. It sure wasn't something I signed up for modeling the Old Main Line.
Have you hugged your child today... and reminded them of the inherent dangers around railroad tracks?


  1. A moving post, Jim. I often ponder how one respectfully models railways in locations and eras where bad things have happened. Wartime railroads are a good example. So are railroads set in the deep south of the US during the years of segregation. Telling the story without causing pain to some (or all) viewers is a huge challenge. I look forward to seeing your version of this area - in a time before tragedy.
    - Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    1. Trevor - I can always count on you to chime in with well thought out comments... I think most of my 'readers' view the photos and then click on their favorite links!... anyway, it's interesting that the devastation from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 was just 'historical research' for me... but this hit home during a time I was really studying the OML and raising a daughter of comparable age... just awful... be well.

  2. Hi Jim,

    I may not always comment, but every time you have new post I do read it through, and not just look at the nice pictures (especially the bench work ;)

    Having raised 3 daughters I can understand how you feel about this tragedy. All of mine are grown woman now but I still think of them as my little girls, and I still worry about them. That's what dads do.

    BTW, I did hug Melissa today. ;)

    1. Ted - I know that you know... and we both know that our little girls are still not immune from moments of misjudgment and/or misfortune... "there but for the grace of God go them" or something like that... be well... I owe you an email on the RPM... tomorrow - Jim

  3. Jim

    Being one who always read your comments and a person who has four granddaughters, I will surely pass this along. Your comments also raise the question about how far we can or should go in depicting a scene. Thus I placed a small segregated outhouse at the back of a scene, feeling that that's not the story line but is noteworthy.

    Roger Sekera

    1. Bonjour, Monsieur Sekera... you're US homestead is in this general area outside of DC, right? ... like your outhouse, I remember Doug Gurin arguing with Alan Keller about the display of the confederate flag on Alan's layout... I would love to engage some modelers for comments about such modeling cunnundrums, but we'll see how it goes... take care of those four!

    2. Yes Jim I do reside outside DC and do model the western part of Virginia in 1959, thus am a bona fide Appalachian modeler. Or at least I try to be. Thanks for the note