John Kelly's Washington: A Sudden Desolation at Both Ends of Metro Trains

By John Kelly
Thursday, June 25, 2009

You didn't need to be pushy or disabled or old to get a seat on Metro yesterday. You just had to be brave.

Or forgetful, though it can't have been easy to have forgotten Monday's fatal accident. The "Situation at Ft. Totten," as the station information boards discreetly called it, must have been on the mind of every subway commuter.

The first decision to make: Do I sit in the front car or not? And what about the last one? Is it better to be the collider or the collidee? Dozens of tweets on the subject have been sent since the crash. Uneasy passengers joked about it as they waited for trains yesterday.

"I did think about it," Kay Parry said yesterday as she waited for a train at Farragut North with her 18-month-old daughter, Stella. "I decided to go to the third car from the front." It wasn't necessarily convenient to the various exits and elevators she needed to negotiate with a stroller, but it seemed safer.

Michelle McNally of Bethesda waited at Farragut North with her mother, Jean McNally, who was visiting from Minnesota. If Michelle had been with her three kids, she's sure they would have pestered her to sit in the very front, in that desirable seat where you can see the driver at work and watch as the aboveground landscape rushes toward you or the below-ground lights blip past like markers in a video game.

"I'd tell them, 'Kids, we've got to sit in the middle,' " said Michelle. That's where she and her mother got on when the train pulled in.

Of course, the first and last cars are usually a little less packed anyway, but there was a definite emptiness to those cars yesterday. The front cars were relatively free not just of passengers but of the things passengers leave behind. There wasn't as much newspaper strewed about.

Teraesa Holland, a University of the District of Columbia student who lives not far from where the crash occurred, was enjoying the room. Rush hour was long over, and she sat halfway back in the first car of a downtown-bound Red Line train, the closest passenger to the driver.

"I'm pretty sure no one's going to get on the train with me," she said. "Maybe people from out of town."

It was odd to think of the front car as a sacrificial area inhabited by just the operator and anyone too clueless to sit farther back, to think of Metro trains as having protective crumple zones. It reminded me of a story my father tells of a high school buddy of his, Jerry Hoover. When Jerry would leave the house with a bunch of friends, his mom would beg him, "Walk in the middle of the crowd."

She lived with visions of a car jumping the curb and thought a phalanx of bodies would protect her son. If she were alive today, she'd be telling him not to ride in the first Metro car.

But if we've learned anything in the past few years, it's that there's only so much we can protect ourselves from. After a few moments, almost every person I spoke to yesterday got quietly philosophical. There's nothing more ordinary, utilitarian, boring than the subway, which made Monday's accident all the more horrific.

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