By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Jeanice McMillan and her young son, Jordan, left their native Buffalo more than a decade ago, seeking a better life in the Washington area. The single mother dreamed of stable government work and one day sending Jordan to college.
After nine years as a postal worker in Arlington County, McMillan decided to change careers in 2007, just as Jordan was on the cusp of graduating from high school. Although she enjoyed being a letter carrier, she wanted to join Metro as a bus driver, a career that would allow her to afford Jordan's education.
McMillan's friends and family members said she immediately fell in love with the job, joyously ferrying passengers around Arlington and Alexandria with an ever-present smile and a soothing, inquisitive voice. Shortly after Jordan enrolled as a freshman at Virginia Union University last fall, McMillan, 42, moved to operating Metro trains on the Red Line in December, according to Metro officials.
Friends and family said she thrived on the camaraderie of driving a Metro train.
"She really liked the train because she felt she was helping so many more people get to work," said younger brother Vernard McMillan, 40, of Upper Marlboro. "She really was proud of that. It got her really excited. She really did care for all her passengers."
Jeanice McMillan died Monday afternoon at the helm of her Red Line Metro train, which crashed into the back of another train that had stopped between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations during the evening rush, just barely an hour into her shift.
Officials have said that the crash could be the result of a mechanical malfunction, operator error or some combination. The initial investigation indicates that the train McMillan was operating was in automatic mode and that the brake had been activated. Investigators said they would examine McMillan's cellphone and text-messaging records. They also will look at her driver's work schedule and blood samples before determining a cause.
With so many questions remaining about the crash, those close to McMillan said they were just beginning to cope with the horror that has unfolded.
Vernard McMillan said he had a strong suspicion that something terrible had happened to his sister when he saw the crash on the news, and he immediately tried to get in touch with her. Officials contacted him seven hours later.
He said his sister never mentioned any safety concerns and also said she enjoyed operating the trains, though she had been doing it only a short time.
Friends and family gathered at Vernard McMillan's home yesterday, holding back tears as they recounted Jeanice's deep ambition and caring soul. They said she was always smiling and looking out for others.
It is that smile that co-workers said they will miss the most.
"She brought a light into the division," said Ayesha Thomas, who worked with McMillan for six months. "She was always laughing."
Earl T. Beatty, a shop steward who was McMillan's union representative earlier in her career, yesterday said she was "a hard worker, a person who wanted a career, not just a job." He said she was brimming with pride when Jordan left home for college.
"She is going to be missed by the Metro family," said Beatty, who said he broke down when heard about McMillan's death. "She was just a positive person. The type of person you'd enjoy to be around."
Beatty said McMillan had no safety problems that he was aware of. Court records show that she received five traffic tickets in Northern Virginia from 2000 to 2006. None were particularly egregious, according to the records, though they included two speeding tickets -- in Alexandria and Arlington -- in a three-month period in late 2000. She also received a safety belt violation in 2005 and two inspection-related tickets. All traffic violations were well before her employment with Metro.
Metro said that McMillan began operating trains in December. Officials with the NTSB said McMillan was hired as a bus driver in January 2007 and that she started train operator training this January and began operating trains March 4. It is unclear why there is a discrepancy.
Co-workers said McMillan was so dedicated to her job that she regularly worked overtime. After she gave up her car, she would sometimes sleep at the administration's building in Brentwood, take a train home to Springfield and then hop a bus back to work.
She so looked forward to her shifts that McMillan would meticulously press her Metro uniform the night before and would glow when talking about her interactions with passengers.
One neighbor who knew her well said McMillan would have done "anything in her power" to prevent the accident.
"She was so proud of her job, and she truly loved her passengers," said Joanne Harrison, who has lived across the hall from McMillan's apartment for five years and became a close friend. "If she had survived, she would have gone to each and every one of those people who were hurt, and the families of those who died, and she would have hugged them and cried with them."
Harrison said McMillan left for work every morning with her hair just so and her nails done perfectly, skipping makeup because of her natural beauty. When she drove a bus in Northern Virginia -- a route that took her through Alexandria, around the Pentagon and into the Ballston area -- McMillan often returned from work talking about how much her passengers loved her and how she wanted to talk to all of them about their day.
"She loved making everyone smile and be happy," Harrison said. "She was just a happy person. She loved making everyone feel comfortable. I admired her so much."
Numerous Metro operators posted comments about the crash online, describing McMillan as a sweet person and saying she will be missed. Operators said they could not speak publicly about McMillan or the incident, but several expressed concerns about the safety of the system and said such an accident should never occur under any circumstances.
"What causes us concern the most is that this was not supposed to happen," said Jackie Lynn Jeter, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Metro operators. Jeter said some operators are afraid for their own safety. "Why didn't the safety mechanism kick in?"
McMillan and her son were very close, and he was having a tough time with her loss, Vernard McMillan said.
"She's in a better place, and she's definitely smiling down on us," he said. "If she could have done something to prevent this from happening, I know she would have done it."
Staff writers Maria Glod, Tom Jackman, Lena H. Sun, Ovetta Wiggins and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.