Metro Crash Victims a Cross Section of the Capital Area
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The people who stepped on Metro's Red Line cars on a warm summer evening were the perfect cross section of the careers and characters who make the nation's capital so compelling: a military general, a Bible school teacher, single moms balancing work and children. It was during that common gray space of their day, while they passed the time reading a book or fighting the urge to sleep, that a single event united nine of those diverse people in a common tragic fate.
There was no warning Monday evening when the click-clack and hum of the Metro commute smash-cut to breaking glass and screams, according to survivors of the crash near the Fort Totten Station that killed train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42, of Springfield and eight passengers.
At a memorial service yesterday at the transit agency, someone read Psalm 23. A black cloth was draped over the Metro symbol. People prayed for those whose life stories unfolded before them. Ana Fernandez, the woman who left behind so many children. LaVonda "Nikki" King, an aspiring beautician.
"It's a common bond. Everybody at some point uses Metro," said Phillip Barrett Jr., who paused to remember those who died. "Everybody was going about their everyday routine. Then this happened."
Among the dead was retired Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. of Washington, a man whose career put him in far more dangerous situations than an evening commute aboard public transit. Wherley, a command pilot who logged more than 5,000 hours in military aircraft, gave the order to scramble planes over Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
Wherley, 62, who later became the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, was lauded for the educational programs he helped create for high school dropouts.
But his military résumé and presence did not define who he was, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
"He was special because he became one of us, instead of the general who commanded our National Guard," Norton said. "I remember how proudly he told me that he and his wife had bought a condominium in the District so they could become residents."
Wherley's wife, Ann Wherley, 62, a mortgage banker, was also killed.
The day of the terrorist attacks, her husband was commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews Air Force Base. He detailed the harrowing minutes of tough decision making in a Washington Post interview in 2002.
Wherley said the moment he knew the attacks would go beyond New York was when one of his officers, whose husband worked at the Pentagon, saw on television that the second tower of the World Trade Center had been hit and began shrieking.
"You've got to be strong," Wherley told the officer before racing out of the building and running several hundred yards to squadron headquarters. There, officers wanted to head to the skies right away, but Wherley was measured. "We have to get some instructions," Wherley told squadron officers. "We can't just fly off half-cocked."