By Annie Gowen and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 27, 2009
The Metro train operator who died trying to stop her train from crashing into another was remembered as a hero yesterday during an emotional memorial service at her church in Southeast Washington.
Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. brought the Temple of Praise congregation to its feet when he said Jeanice McMillan, 42, "saved lives" in trying to apply the emergency brakes on her Red Line train before it slammed into another during Monday evening's rush hour. She would be honored "as the Metro hero," he said. Hundreds of mourners -- including more than 100 Metro employees, some in their blue uniforms -- gave Catoe a sustained ovation.
"When the investigation is completed, we will find she went beyond her job," Catoe said afterward. "I believe she saved lives. She was able to slow that train up before it crashed."
McMillan, a Springfield resident, had been operating Metro trains for only three months before the crash, which killed her and eight others and injured about 80. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are focusing on a train control system that should have prevented the crash.
Investigators performed a simulation Wednesday night in which test results suggest that the train McMillan operated might not have received information that another was stopped ahead on the rails north of the Fort Totten Metro station.
The steel rails show evidence that McMillan activated the emergency brakes before the crash.
"The city has lost a fantastic public servant," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at the funeral. "Her title was conductor, but as this service has shown us, she was really a leader. That is how she will be remembered."
The service lasted nearly two hours and featured Scripture reading, gospel performances and testimonials from family and friends.
Temple of Praise Bishop Glen A. Staples also brought the crowd to cheers when he said in fiery tones: "You've got to be a different kind of person to look at death head-on and say, 'I'm going to save as many as I can.' We have a debt of gratitude for what she has done for the city."
An emotional moment came when McMillan's son Jordan, 19, talked about the sacrifices his mother made as a single parent to send him to Virginia Union University, where he just completed his freshman year.
"She was there for me for everything," he said. "If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I'd be."
Jordan said his mother hardly ever let him miss a day of school. "She was very strict on me," he said. "I'm going to miss her calling my name."
The two moved to the Washington area in 1996 from McMillan's home town of Buffalo, where she graduated from Turner-Carroll High School in 1984. She worked as a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in Arlington County from 1997 to 2004. She loved the job, but it took a physical toll on her, family members said. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome and had surgery to correct it. Relatives said she had to keep working because she had Jordan at home.
"In spite of being in pain, she always had a smile on her face and was a dedicated employee," Joanye Curtis, who worked with McMillan at the Postal Service, said in an interview.
McMillan started as a bus driver for Metro in spring 2007. Friends and family members said she loved her job, carefully ironing her uniform before her evening shifts and often working overtime.
In an interview this week, Vernard McMillan, 40, of Upper Marlboro said his older sister spent most of her spare time doting on family. She also was very much into her exercise videos, fending off his suggestions that she join a gym.
On June 12, she joined her family to celebrate her niece's graduation from Forestville Military Academy, worked a Metro shift last Saturday and then went to Baltimore for a family baptism. She returned home Sunday to spend more time with her extended family. It turned out to be the last visit with many of them.
"The last time I saw her she was so happy, as she always was," Vernard McMillan said. "We always appreciate those days, and that's what we'll remember."
She was known as a great cook, with neighbors saying she often prepared greens that she would share.
When her car -- an aging Volvo with more than 250,000 miles on it -- failed in recent years, she gave up driving. Jordan said she sometimes slept at Metro's administration building because finding rides home was difficult.
"She didn't purchase a new car because of her son being in school, and she didn't want a car payment," Vernard McMillan said. "Her focus was on her son's education."
Vernard McMillian said he and Jordan went to his sister's apartment Thursday to get some things Jordan needed and found the apartment just as she had left it, meticulously clean. Before he left, Jordan made his bed, as his mother always insisted he do.
The family -- which made a brief statement before yesterday's service, asking for privacy during this "tender moment" -- will be taking McMillan's remains to her home town for a funeral there.
Metro employees filled the first 10 pews of the large sanctuary, some weeping as they saw the large pictures of McMillan at the front of the church -- one of her with a wide smile, the other with her arms around a much-younger Jordan. Afterward, they congregated in groups of two or three and remembered their friend.
Linda Barnes-Walker, a Metro bus driver from the District, recalled studying with McMillan when the two were in the two-month Metro training class together in 2007.
"She'd always hold me up when I got out of sorts," Barnes-Walker said. "She was a wonderful person and a beautiful spirit."