By Rosalind S. Helderman and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
In the first car of the six-car Red Line train, on a sunny-day evening commute, passengers heard a message familiar to any Metrorail rider: The conductor said they were holding for a moment -- there was a train ahead.
The train started moving again, picking up to moderate speed.
Then, without even the squeal of brakes as a warning, there was a crash and the feeling of being lifted up as the train hit one that was stopped.
In the moments after the crash, passengers made tourniquets out of T-shirts, struggled to pull debris off others and sought to calm the hysterical and the gravely wounded. Inside the worst-hit car, waiting on ambulances and the "jaws of life," an Anglican priest led a group in the Lord's Prayer. On the ground below, a civilian Pentagon employee told a wounded girl that he wouldn't accept her last wish, that she was going to live.
Inside the car, there was dust and broken glass and blood. Seats had been ripped from the floor and thrown around: One man was trapped between two of them, with a leg that appeared broken. A woman was screaming, invisible, buried beneath a pile of seats.
But the most incredible thing was the floor itself. It was gone, peeled away. Passengers could look down and see the grooved metal roof of another Metro train.
"The front of the train just opened up," said Marcie Bacchus, 30, who was among a handful of passengers in the car at the center of the deadliest accident in Metro's 33-year history.
The crash happened about 5 p.m. on an aboveground stretch of track that runs through neighborhoods between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations. Authorities said one Red Line train rear-ended another, hitting with such force that its first car was thrown on top of the other train.
Brianna Milstead, 17, a high school student from Waldorf, was in that car. She could see out the front window, and she saw the other train getting closer, but it was too late to react.
"It happened so quick," Milstead said, looking at her ash-covered hands. "The floor smushed up. It was lifted up. I saw the debris flying toward me. I was choking on the smoke."
Dave Bottoms, 39, had just left his job as an Army chaplain at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The Anglican priest was in the back of the front car that slammed into the stopped train. When he saw the train buckling, it looked just like it would in the movies, he said.
"It felt like it was going in slow motion," he said. "I started praying."
In the chaotic moments after the crash, he went to a young woman who had been pinned between seats. She was hysterical, he said, but he began calming her.
Meanwhile, the emergency exit and the doors were jammed. A middle-aged man on the train grabbed a fire extinguisher to break one of the car's windows.
When first responders arrived, Bottoms and two others initially refused to get off the train, wanting to continue to comfort the young woman pinned between the seats.
"I just talked with her," he said. "I told her to pray."
Passengers in other cars on the two trains said they felt a jolt, then opened the door and saw the wreckage: a car in the air, a man on the tracks. Some said they didn't know what to do. Should they stay? Should they get off? They worried about the electrified third rail. In one group, a man said, "I'm getting off" and jumped out.
Mike Corcoran, 39, who was in another car, said someone burst into his section after the impact and said help was needed at the back of the train. He ran back and saw a man and woman pinned between seats.
Blood splattered the train's windows, he said. Another woman was standing, he said, but her foot was bleeding profusely.
Corcoran pulled off his polo shirt, quickly yanked off his undershirt and tied it around the woman's foot as a tourniquet. He told her to keep pressure on it until help arrived.
In the surrounding neighborhoods, residents were jolted by the sound of the crash and drawn to the scene, near where New Hampshire Avenue NE crosses over the Metro tracks.
"The folks were beating on the windows, trying to get out. I saw some of them on their cellphones. You can tell they didn't know what was going on, but they knew something had happened," Jervis Bryant said. "They were just scared."
Linda Dixon, a Northeast Washington resident, was drawn by the sirens. She said she saw rescuers pull a man out of the wreckage on a stretcher, place him on the ground and pull a white sheet over him.
Two hours later, the black van of the medical examiner's office arrived. By then, the white sheet was stained with blood.
"Oh God, it's just horrible. I feel so terrible because you just know there's somebody waiting for him to come home. He'll never get there," Dixon said.
The crash's impact rippled across Washington's transportation network, crowding buses, stranding some travelers and leading others to commute on foot.
"It was confusion. A lot of confusion. You had people trying to bum rush the buses," said Anthony McLemore, 41, of Takoma Park, who got on the Red Line at Farragut North not knowing that there had been a crash. More than two hours later, he arrived at Fort Totten, trying to catch his second bus of the day. The commute "was horrific," he said.
Others across the region faced a different kind of wait, trying to figure out what happened to loved ones on the train.
Sharon Hodge was standing behind police lines at Oglethorpe Street NW and Blair Road, searching for her son, when an ambulance drove by. She was screaming out, "Corey, Corey, can you hear me? You in there? Mama's here!" Her cellphone rang shortly thereafter. It was Corey. He was being taken to Washington Adventist Hospital. The 26-year-old had been on one of the trains with his aunt.
Afterward, passengers talked about coincidences, little things that had taken them just out of harm's way. Savannah Green, 16, usually walks to the front car of the train to be closer to the exit at her destination. But yesterday, she was "too lazy" and got in the third car. She was not injured.