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Rescuers 'Tried Everything We Could'

By Allison Klein and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It was so quiet.

A half-hour after a Metro train had slammed into another, when no one was sure who was alive and who was dead, a stunned silence settled over hundreds of people at the scene of the deadliest crash in Metro history.

"It was really, really quiet," said D.C. fire Sgt. Chris Holmes. "Nobody was yelling and screaming. It was weird."

Those who could walk were corralled in a secure area and marked with colored tags to indicate their wounds -- yellow, green and red. Rescue workers were extricating people who were caught in the crash debris.

Holmes, who is part of the special operations division, and his rescue dog, Cazo, were there to comb the wreckage for the wounded and deceased. When Cazo, a black German shepherd, finds someone alive, he barks; when he finds a body, he just sniffs. He was the only working dog on the scene.

They started around the perimeter of the crash and found the first victim about 30 feet in front of the train, on the tracks. Cazo did not bark, and the man was marked with a black tag.

Cazo led Holmes to another victim, beside the train on the track bed. No bark.

Holmes next took Cazo atop the first car of the trailing train. It had been sheared in half and was resting on the rear of the train in front, torn open. They found someone who had been ejected through the roof, still in a Metro seat.

Finally, Cazo barked.

The victim was taken to a hospital. Holmes said he isn't sure whether the person survived.

After finishing the perimeter, he took Cazo inside the train. The dog found a "hot spot" in the operator's compartment, where Metro driver Jeanice McMillan, 42, was found dead.

"He was trying to get in there to get a better scent," Holmes said. "He was definitely trying to get in there." Holmes went in and found McMillan and two dead passengers.

The pair located at least five of the nine people who died in the crash. They did not uncover anyone else alive, he said.

The scene was similar to those of other catastrophes Holmes and Cazo have worked: the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and a school collapse last year in Haiti.

"Everything was mangled, the train split apart, you had seats that were everywhere, personal effects on the ground," Holmes said. There were also body parts, but he didn't want to talk about that.

Holmes worked with a crew that removed about 10 people trapped in the wreckage, many of whom had broken bones. "There was a lot of technical rescue work that had to be done," he said. "You had to use your training a lot. Like, if we start cutting on this, that might be affected. We had to make educated decisions on what to do."

Holmes worked the scene for about nine hours. "When someone calls 911, it's the worst day of their life," he said. "It's comforting to know you're there to help out, but it's very difficult because you can see emotions in people's faces."

Elsewhere in the wreckage, two rescuers tried to reassure a crying passenger that they were doing their best to get her out. The firefighters guessed she was about 20. Her jeans were stained with blood, and she was trapped in a smashed and tightly compressed tangle of metal.

It was hot and oily and smelly, and whenever Scott Hudson, 31, and Bill Whetzel, 49, moved something out of the crushed Metro car, it creaked like a collapsing coal mine.

The two firefighters, of Rescue 2, kept touching the young woman to reassure her, but they did not have time to hold her hand.

For a half-hour the men worked amid the tangle of debris and death of what remained of the crushed car of Train 112 to extricate the young victim, whose name they did not know.

"It was 'Helps,' and they dwindled to -- every time we'd move her -- moans and cries," Hudson said yesterday.

Whetzel said the two men told the woman: "We're working as hard as we can to get you."

They worked with hydraulic rescue tools, but it was tedious and dangerous. "As much as you like to dig in there with torches and stuff, sometimes it's hand, piece by piece," Hudson said.

As time passed, the two men realized the woman was slipping away.

"You hope for the best," Whetzel said. The two had extricated a deceased passenger who appeared to be next to their survivor.

After a time, the cries ceased. There wasn't an exact moment, but at some point as they worked they realized she was dead. "It wasn't blatantly apparent," Hudson said. "But you knew."

They kept working, though, until they got her free.

"Just a young girl," Whetzel said. "You think about it later. Unfortunately, somebody didn't go home to their family. . . . We tried everything we could."

Still, said Hudson, "nobody likes to have that result.

"That's not why we show up."

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