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Another disaster has Main Street merchants reeling

On Main Street in Historic Ellicott City, business owners are reeling after a deadly train derailment around midnight on Tuesday left much of the area inaccessible to traffic — and their customers.

Dozens of shops and eateries were closed Tuesday, and because public safety authorities say they can’t be sure when they’ll reopen Main Street — which has been closed below its intersection with Old Columbia Pike — many store owners said they expect sales to take a major hit.

Authorities haven’t yet determined what caused 21 cars of an 80-car Baltimore-bound CSX train to jump the track, killing two women and dumping mountains of coal on a parking lot beneath the bridge it was crossing. Officials are investigating the deaths of Elizabeth Conway Nass and Rose Louese Mayr, both 19 and both of Ellicott City.

Kim Woodruff, a Howard County police officer, said it took officials about four hours to upright two of the six cars that fell off the bridge, crushing several parked cars.

“It would not surprise me if [the cleanup] runs a couple of days,” she said.

At Portalli’s, a restaurant near the bridge that didn’t open because of the incident, owner Evan Brown said if the street remains closed for that long, he’ll lose a significant amount of business.

“It definitely hurts,” he said. “People avoid Ellicott City anyway when they think traffic is bad, so I can’t imagine what they’re going to do with this.”

The poor timing exacerbated the situation, Brown added. Although August tends to be a slow month, sales usually get a boost this week because families return from vacation and want to dine out before school starts, he said.

Across the street at Cacao Lane restaurant, which also stayed dark Tuesday, a manager mumbled, “It’s bad,” before lighting a cigarette and scurrying away.

Having fewer customers isn’t the only worry. Delivery trucks couldn’t get past the blockade at Main Street and Old Columbia Pike, cutting off needed supplies to dozens of shops and restaurants.

Marc Lund sat inside his specialty pet store Work. Play. Bark! awaiting a delivery that wouldn’t come. But he knew he wasn’t the only one waiting.

“Who isn’t?” he asked, gesturing down the street.

Many shops, with their eye-catching window displays, capture much of their business from foot traffic, owners said. Patrons often park in lots atop the hill, which were still accessible Tuesday, then walk down.

However, road signs were posted miles away cautioning drivers to take alternative routes, which may have led shoppers to believe the entire area was off-limits, several people said. Lund said although his customers often arrive by foot — or paw — the commotion could make them wary of Main Street altogether.

When asked how the disaster would affect the week’s profits, Lund responded: “What profits? We’re not going to have anything.”

Main Street is no stranger to disaster, especially flooding. Last September, flash floods after Hurricane Lee devastated the sloping area, which has also been plagued by “power outages, earthquakes — everything,” Brown said.

Michelle Suazo, an Ellicott City resident who knows several shop owners on the hill, said the derailment is yet another challenge for an already struggling business community.

“They do so much to try to survive down here, so this is going to be hard,” she said. “They all have so much passion for keeping Main Street alive.”

Bean Hollow Coffee and Confections had a long line around lunchtime Tuesday. David Banach, a barista from Catonsville, said they were “actually busier than usual.” The café is located on Main Street, right before a line of yellow police tape at the bridge, so it was a popular hub for onlookers, members of the media and worker crews.

CSX representatives did not return calls inquiring about alternate routes for other trains that would have traveled along the same track.

The wreckage also disrupted phone service for some local and long-distance Verizon Communications customers, according to a company press release. Outages extended to the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, delaying the trials of five men charged with orchestrating and aiding the Sept. 11 attacks, the Associated Press reported. Lawyers preparing for pretrial hearings could not access government servers, according to the report.