By Lena H. Sun and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 23, 2009; A01
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.
This is the third serious Metrorail crash since 1996. The last fatal train crash occurred 13 years ago, when a Red Line train overshot the Shady Grove platform on an icy night and plowed into another train. The operator died. In November 2004, a Red Line train rolled backward down a steep stretch of track and smashed into another train at the Woodley Park Station. Twenty people were injured, but there were no fatalities.
The deadliest accident in the system's history before yesterday occurred in 1982, when a six-car Orange Line train bound for New Carrollton derailed near the Federal Triangle Station when an improperly aligned switch caused it to enter the wrong track. Three passengers were killed.
In yesterday's crash, both six-car trains were headed toward downtown Washington. The first train, No. 214, stopped because a third train in front had stopped at the Fort Totten platform, said Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. The second train, No. 112, came up behind it and "for reasons we do not know, plowed into that train," Catoe said. The stopped train was made up of mostly 5000 series rail cars, a group that has had numerous problems with doors and wheels. The striking train was made up of mostly 1000 series cars -- at more than 30 years old, the fleet's oldest.
Riders described chaos when the crash occurred. In the train that was struck, passengers said the train had stopped three times in the moments before the crash. After the impact, many passengers had to jump from the side of the train to the ground. Other riders helped lift passengers down safely.
Tom Baker, 47, a District resident, was in the first car of the second train. There were eight to 10 passengers in his car. As they pulled out of Takoma on the way to Fort Totten, the female operator said the train was holding because there was a train in front of them. Shortly thereafter, the train started moving again, and there was soon an "enormous crashing jolt," he said.
"You could hear all this crashing and glass breaking," Baker said. "I didn't hear any brakes at all." He said he couldn't gauge how fast the train was moving but said it was traveling at moderate speed. He saw the train lift into the air, he said. "When the dust settled, the entire front of the train was gone," and riders could see down to the train below them.
Garrett Dorsey, 44, of the District was in the train that was rear-ended. The operator said the train had to stop because of some kind of difficulty, and then "there was just a boom like an explosion," he said. Seats flew up.
Martin Griffith, a civilian employee at the Pentagon, was inside the train that was struck. Afterward, he said, "I looked out the window. I looked up. I could see the wreckage hanging over the door. There was a woman there, too, trying to hang on."
He hit the emergency release and opened the door out onto the track. "That's when I realized people had been ejected out. They were lying on the ground next to the car," Griffith said.
He said he helped one woman who had fallen near an electrified third rail, collecting other passenger's T-shirts to stanch her bleeding.
After the power to the live rail was turned off and rescuers reached her, Griffith said, he found another young woman. He said it wasn't clear whether she had been ejected from the train that hit his or had climbed out on her own. Her legs looked broken, Griffith said, and he sat with her while firefighters used the jaws of life to open the doors on a nearby train so she could be taken to an ambulance.
"She said, 'Tell my boyfriend . . . ' " Griffith said, and then he cut her off. "You tell him yourself. You're breathing. You can see me. You don't need to give me any last messages."
He then used her cellphone to call her mother. Ernice Beasly picked up: the injured girl was her daughter Lanice, 14. Later, she said that her daughter was at the hospital, unconscious and badly cut but alive. She said of Griffith: "Thank the Lord for him."
Griffith then walked to the Fort Totten station and took the Metro home to Northern Virginia, still wearing the black pants and white dress shirt he'd had on at the crash scene.
"People were looking at me strange," he said. "I had blood all over me, none of it my own."