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A Deadly Turn At Intersection With History of Pedestrian Peril
Metro Orders More Training for Drivers

By Nick Miroff and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 16, 2007

Martha Stringer Schoenborn always called her husband, Greg, twice on her way home from work: first when she walked out of the Federal Trade Commission and then before entering the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro station. She called Greg once Wednesday night.

"I started making calls," Greg Schoenborn said yesterday at the Alexandria home the couple shared. "I must have called her 50 times. I thought, 'What's going on? Where is my wife?' "

Schoenborn and Sally Dean McGhee -- her friend, neighbor and co-worker -- were struck and killed by a Metrobus while crossing Pennsylvania Avenue NW at 6:39 p.m.

At the intersection where the two women were killed, there have been eight accidents in the past two years involving Metrobuses and pedestrians, making it one of the city's most dangerous, transportation planners and city officials said yesterday. The incident, on Seventh Street, is at least the third involving an FTC employee and a Metrobus, said FTC spokeswoman Nancy Ness Judy.

Metro's new general manager, John B. Catoe Jr., responded to the latest incident by announcing that all 2,400 Metrobus operators will undergo safety training every year.

The bus driver in Wednesday's accident, Victor Z. Kolako, 53, of Southeast Washington, was arraigned in D.C. Superior Court yesterday and charged with two counts of negligent homicide. Kolako, a driver since 2000, has been placed on unpaid administrative leave. Metro officials and D.C. police said they were awaiting the results of standard drug and alcohol tests.

According to court documents prepared for his appearance before Magistrate Judge Evelyn B. Coburn, both women were pulled under the bus by the impact. The roadway was partially covered with snow and ice, "but the crosswalk was clear and visible," the documents said. A witness told police that the driver did not look when he made the turn, failed to yield the right of way to the women and did not apply the brakes.

Metro officials said they were taking several steps to improve pedestrian safety. In addition to training sessions, officials said, they will have talks with bus drivers to "re-emphasize the requirement to wait for and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks," Catoe said in a written statement.

"We offer our condolences to the families," Catoe told reporters at a Metro board meeting yesterday. "It was a tragedy. We need to do everything possible to avoid a repeat. That bus operator has made left turns 10,000 times successfully. Unfortunately, this time something happened that was different."

The two women had the "walk" signal to cross Pennsylvania Avenue. Metrobus 2124, running the 54 route to Takoma, was traveling north on Seventh Street and making a left turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue, officials said.

The intersection is especially dangerous because the traffic signals are timed to give priority to drivers on Pennsylvania Avenue rather than walkers crossing its nine lanes. Pedestrians have 30 seconds to cross the avenue. By contrast, pedestrians crossing Seventh Street have 55 seconds south of the avenue and 46 seconds north of it.

"Thirty seconds may not be enough time for slower-moving pedestrians to cross at that location," said Colleen Mitchell, a transportation planner for Toole Design Group, a Hyattsville-based consulting firm helping the city improve pedestrian safety.

Between 2001 and 2006, the intersection was among the top four for crashes involving pedestrians, with between 14 and 20 accidents, she said. Pennsylvania Avenue's "excessive width" encourages vehicles to travel at high speeds, Mitchell said, and its lack of medians adds to the peril.

Nonetheless, she said, no amount of traffic engineering can affect the most critical factor in crashes: driver behavior. "In this case, you had pedestrians in the crosswalk, they had the 'go' sign and they were hit by a left-turning bus," she said.

Catoe said the driver had a "very good" safety record and had more than the required eight hours of rest before his shift began at 4:30 p.m. The operator's records also show that he did not work many overtime hours, Catoe said.

"It does not appear to be an issue of fatigue," he said.

Kolako is due back in court March 7 and was ordered by the judge not to drive any motor vehicles until permitted to do so by the court.

Two drivers who said they saw the accident said the bus driver did not appear to see the women in the crosswalk.

"I had the right of way. The pedestrians had the right of way. He was just going too fast," said Shahzad Cheema, a cabdriver.

Cheema said he yielded the right of way to the women as he waited to turn right from southbound Seventh Street and saw the Metrobus turn ahead of him. Moments later, the women lay in front of his taxi.

McGhee, 54, loved gardening and playing the piano, said her younger sister Molly Blasko, reached by phone yesterday in Atlantic Beach, Fla. She never married and lived alone. Greg Schoenborn, a contractor and musician, had recently remodeled McGhee's kitchen.

"I'm sick inside," Blasko said. "I'm in shock."

Martha Schoenborn, 59, had helped McGhee get a job as an administrative assistant at the FTC, and the two commuted together each day. Schoenborn's signal to pick them up at the Pentagon City station was his wife's second phone call.

On the night of the accident -- Valentine's Day -- Greg Schoenborn left home early, worried that he'd need extra time because of icy roads. When he arrived at Pentagon City, the women weren't there. His phone remained quiet. He waited. He dialed. An hour passed.

"Then I flipped on WTOP News and heard about the accident at Seventh and Pennsylvania," he said. "It was two female pedestrians. My world crashed right there."

Schoenborn called the police. One of the women had died at the scene, he was told, and the other had been taken to George Washington University Hospital. But they had not been identified, so Schoenborn raced for the emergency room. By the time he arrived, his wife was dead, and all that remained for him to do was identify her body, he said.

The couple were married 2 1/2 years ago, Schoenborn said yesterday at their apartment, where he spent the afternoon chain-smoking -- something his wife never let him do in the house -- surrounded by friends. The walls, shelves and side tables were decorated with wedding pictures.

Another snapshot showed Martha Schoenborn's daughter, Kim Pifer, 35, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., and was on her way to Alexandria last night.

The Schoenborns never got over their honeymoon phase, he said -- dancing, cooking, listening to music together. "We would sit there and talk all night," he said. "I just wanted to inhale her all the time."

By 3 p.m. yesterday, Schoenborn's grief was turning into frustration. No one from Metro or Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's office had called to express their regrets or condolences, he said, nor had police told him where he could retrieve his wife's body and her belongings.

"I don't know when I'm going to get her back," he said. "I just want my wife back."

Staff writers Henri E. Cauvin and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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