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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.

Ginny Hughes, a clinical social worker from Takoma Park, was using her commute yesterday to think about the victims. She'd noticed that the trains were chugging a little more slowly than usual, and she wondered whether Metro was trying to reassure riders. "I think I feel more sadness for the families and the people who lost their lives. I would say I was more connected to sadness than fear."

"When it's your time to go, it's your time to go," said Brookland's Gary Bowers, who sat in the last car of a train headed toward Shady Grove. "You can't run from it." And anyway, now was the safest time to ride Metro. "I figured they'd be more extra careful," he said.

I thought of my own seating routine. Back when I used to worry more about terrorism than faulty signal boxes, I decided the front car was the safest place to sit. What al-Qaeda operative would unleash his plot so close to the driver? Or maybe the last car was better. Wouldn't it be the best place to escape from if the tunnel was turned into a wall of fire?

"We're not in control," said Juanita Tamayo Lott as her train pulled into Fort Totten and she prepared to board a shuttle bus to Silver Spring. "We have to be like good Boy Scouts and be prepared, but we're not in control, which is kind of hard for people in Washington, D.C. Your life can change just like that."

The retired U.S. Census demographer had gone down to the Mall for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and was heading home to Colesville. Normally, she would have sat in the front. She was sitting in the middle.

"I'll do that for the time being," she said.

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