At Least 6 Killed in Red Line Crash
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
One Metro train slammed into the back of another on the Red Line at the height of the evening rush yesterday, killing at least six and injuring 70 others in the deadliest accident in Metrorail's 33-year-history.
Metro officials expected the death toll to rise to at least nine.
The impact of the crash was so powerful that the trailing train was left atop the first train. Witnesses told stories of rescues and people helping others amid the chaos. Firefighters had to use heavy rescue equipment to cut open the cars to reach people trapped inside, and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said fire officials were still going through the trains last night to make sure they had recovered all the bodies.
One of the dead was Jeanice McMillan, 42, of Springfield, the operator of the train that rear-ended another stopped in front of it just outside the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington, Metro officials said.
No one answered the phone last night at McMillan's home.
Metro and rescue officials gave no details about the operator or the other fatalities. The crash occurred just after 5 p.m., and traffic on the train lines and highways was severely affected.
Metro, like all transit agencies, is supposed to have numerous safety systems in place to prevent crashes, and it was not clear what caused yesterday's accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and has assigned a railroad investigator and two specialists from its office of transportation disaster assistance. The Metro board is scheduled to hold a special meeting at 2 p.m. today.
Although the investigation is just beginning, certain systems are designed to prevent an accident like yesterday's. During morning and afternoon rush hours, all trains except longer eight-car trains typically operate in automatic mode, meaning their movements are controlled by computerized systems and the central Operations Control Center. Both trains in yesterday's crash were six-car trains. But officials would not say whether the trains were in automatic mode or being operated manually.
Investigators will probably focus on a possible failure of Metro's computerized signal system, which is designed to prevent trains from coming close enough to collide, as well as operator error, according to former Metro officials. A Metro source said McMillan was relatively inexperienced, ranking 18th from the bottom on the seniority list of 523 train operators. She had been a Metro employee since January 2007, officials said. Train operators must first operate a bus for a year before they can apply to operate the train. They then receive about 12 weeks of training.
The computerized system should work whether trains are being operated manually or by computer.
But even if the signal system failed to stop the train, the operator should have intervened and applied emergency brakes, safety experts familiar with Metro's operations say. The position of the second train after the crash -- the fact that its first car came to rest atop the other train -- indicates that the second train was traveling at high speed. In the section of track where the accident occurred, the maximum speed is supposed to be 58 mph. Metro officials would not say how fast the trains were going because of the ongoing NTSB investigation.
There was no maintenance work scheduled in the relatively long, flat section of track between the stations. For many weeks, trains were slowed because of a weakness in the track bed that Metro said it repaired in spring.