‘Not a happy place’

The families of those killed in the deadliest crash in Metro’s 35-year history asked politicians and the transit authority Wednesday to dedicate a park to honor the nine people who died in the June 22, 2009, accident near Fort Totten Station.

About 70 family members and friends, along with surviving passengers, gathered with politicians, Metro executives and board members under a white tent at the station to mark the second anniversary of the crash. A train operator and eight passengers were killed and dozens were injured in the accident when one train crashed into another between Fort Totten and Takoma stations.

Several relatives of victims spoke during the hour-long ceremony. Evelyn Fernandez, 20, of Silver Spring read a letter she wrote to her late mother, Ana Fernandez.

“It’s very hard because there are six of us and any child, at any age, wants his mother here,” she said later. “It’s a rough, long road. We’re trying to go on, but we’re not going to forget her.”

At times, the memorial ceremony in sweltering heat was heavy with emotion. Jacqueline McSwain, a Metro rail supervisor, described how her son, Gary Bullock, was aboard one of the trains and has had to try to recover physically and psychologically.

Other family members expressed anger and worried that Metro has not done enough to make the system safer. But transit officials say Metro has provided more training for employees and installed new equipment, although they acknowledge that more work needs to be done.

Carolyn Jenkins, the mother of Veronica DuBose, a 29-year-old mother of two who died in the crash, stood at a lectern and held up a black-and-white poster of her daughter's face with an autopsy tag that read No. 09-1458.

“My daughter put her trust in Metro to get her to her destination, but she wound up with a tag on her face,” Jenkins told the crowd. “I want to express my displeasure at the uncaring way Metro has handled this. They only acknowledge it once a year, and we have to deal with it every day thanks to Metro’s negligence.”

Tawanda Brown, the mother of 23-year-old LaVonda “Nikki” King, an aspiring beautician killed in the crash, called on the politicians and Metro executives to dedicate a memorial park for the victims and to place a plaque bearing their names and photos on the New Hampshire Avenue bridge that overlooks the tracks where the accident happened.

Brown said “a park would be a great reflection of the lives” of the nine victims and a place where their family members can go for “peaceful reflections,” rather than just visiting grave sites.

Brown and other families of the victims said they want a park between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations. The crash occurred on the inbound track between the two stops. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said he would work with D.C. Council members and Metro to place a plaque on the bridge and designate a park for the victims.

Since the accident, Metro officials have made efforts to upgrade equipment, including replacing track circuits, which the National Transportation Safety Board blamed for failing to detect the presence of a train.

Catherine Hudgins, chair of Metro’s board of directors, promised the families that the transit agency’s “highest priority is safety.” The transit agency’s general manager, Richard Sarles, said Metro has “embraced” the recommendations of the NTSB, which also included reversing a negligent attitude toward safety.

After the speeches, Metro officials and family members laid a wreath of white flowers next to a bronze-colored plaque that listed the victims’ names.

“This is not a happy place,” said Bullock, 23, as he carried a white rose to the site. “I know there’s families here who had loved ones on that train, and I was there with them.

“We flew out of the train,” he said. “I’m just thankful I’m alive.”

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.
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