Victims of 2009 Metro crash are remembered

The 6-year-old who ran across a new District park site Sunday afternoon, beaded braids bouncing, doesn’t remember the smiling woman pictured on her T-shirt.

“I Love You Mom,” the shirt reads. But Ava DuBose was just a baby when her mom died. Five years ago, Veronica DuBose was one of nine victims of the deadliest train crash in Metro history, and she and the others will soon be memorialized at the park Ava visited Sunday.

“It’s very hard. Every year is hard for us,” said Carolyn Jenkins, Ava’s grandmother, who is raising the girl and her 12-year-old brother.

The crash occurred on June 22, 2009, between the Fort Totten and Takoma Metro stations on the Red Line at the height of the evening rush hour. It killed a train operator and eight riders and injured 80. To mark the anniversary, about a dozen members of DuBose’s family and dozens of dignitaries, relatives of victims and others were present at the groundbreaking for the park near the crash site in Northeast Washington.

Once completed, the park will have nine sculptures, one for each victim of the crash, as well as benches, lighting and a canopy of entwined sycamore trees. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said the park is a $1.8 million project.

Although a computer system should have detected the speed of Train 112 and its distance from the idling train in front of it, Train 112 sped forward. Once she spotted the train in front of her, operator Jeanice McMillan applied the emergency brake, but it failed to prevent the crash. McMillan and passengers Mary “Mandy” Doolittle, DuBose, Ana Fernandez, Dennis Hawkins, LaVonda “Nikki” King, Ann Wherley, Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. and Cameron Williams were killed.

After the crash, National Transportation Safety Board inspectors found that the computer system designed to prevent such crashes malfunctioned in a test.

Congress, the Obama administration and the public quickly focused on other problems with Metro’s technology, funding and governance.

The car at the front of Train 112 was one of the 1000 series cars, manufactured more than 30 years ago. The NTSB had told Metro after a 2004 crash at the Red Line’s Woodley Park station that the 1000 series cars were at risk of crumpling in a collision. Metro said it could not afford to quickly replace the cars.

Even though the NTSB said that Metro’s plan to gradually retire the 1000 series cars was “unacceptable,” the cars still made up a quarter of the agency’s fleet — including the car at the front of Train 112 — in 2009.

Six months after the crash, Metro still had not corrected more than 100 safety problems identified by independent investigators.

Then-Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. and others at the top of the agency resigned in the months after the crash. Safety improvements followed, but some critics of the agency contend that it hasn’t done all it can to improve safety.

Deborah Hersman, who as the head of the NTSB led the criticism of Metro after the Fort Totten crash, was quoted as telling attendees during a conference last week at which Metro won a gold award for safety, that the agency has gone “from worst to first among their peers.”

But as they remembered their lost loved ones on Sunday, several family members said that Metro has more to do. “We must put the lives and the safety of everyone first, over profit, over brand names, over salaries. It should have never happened,” said Carolyn Gamble, one of King’s aunts.

Mayoral candidate Muriel E. Bowser, who as a D.C. Council member represents Ward 4, where the crash took place, spoke about the need for further transportation safety improvements during the groundbreaking ceremony.

“We are always reminded on this day every year that we have to make our transportation system safer,” said Bowser, who serves on Metro’s board of directors. “We can make sure that every investment is made to make sure that we don’t have to be here again.”

After the event, Bowser said she hopes to see the region’s local governments and the federal government follow through on a $6 billion plan to replace aging equipment and a $26 billion plan to accommodate the increasing number of Metro users.

The park is a fair distance from the Fort Totten Metro station, and visitors will not be able to see the crash site from the park’s benches and walkways.

Several family members of victims worked together to compose a poetic statement that will be inscribed on a wall in the park.

“In stillness, you will hear their legacy speak,” part of a draft of the statement reads. But with more than 100 attendees eating snacks and sharing memories at the groundbreaking, the park was anything but still.

Pat Astor, sister of Ann Wherley, watched her grandson play with one of the nine golden shovels used in the groundbreaking. Before they died, the Wherleys were planning to move from Washington to North Carolina to be closer to their grandchild, and by now, they would have been the grandparents of two.

“They’ve missed all that. For me, knowing how much joy my grandchildren bring to me, I think that’s the thing that hurts the most,” Astor said.

Including and honoring a broad swath of the community — first responders and survivors, those who mourn and those too young to remember — was on the minds of the people who designed the park, architect Julian Hunt said.

“We looked at the root meaning of commemoration as co-memory, or shared memory — remembering together as a community,” Hunt said. “We hope that what we built here, after so much suffering, and effort by so many people, will not only bring calm but will ring with the sounds of children playing very soon. And that is the best we can hope for.”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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