By Robert McCartney
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Jeanice McMillan was a working person. She earned $18.20 an hour operating Red Line trains. She couldn't afford a car, because she was paying tuition so her son could attend college, which she never did. She belonged to a union, one that Metro management sometimes portrays as greedy and pampered.
Nonetheless, McMillan was subject to a kind of professional code of conduct, like those associated with the lawyers and doctors who rode in her train and earn $200 an hour or more. In a crisis, that code requires an operator to stay calm, remain at his or her post and push the "mushroom" braking device even as the train is hurtling into a horrific crash.
Among Metro employees, the worry lurks that a panicked train operator might rush back into the passenger area to seek safety. It's a matter of deep pride that workers in risky, responsible positions perform well in such situations. That reflects a culture of public service within the transit system for which it typically gets less credit than it deserves.
So, as details emerged last week about Monday's Red Line crash, Metro's employees paid close attention to how McMillan had acted. She was in the cab of Train 112 as it barreled around a bend and smashed into Train 214, unexpectedly halted near Fort Totten Station in Northeast, killing McMillan and eight passengers and injuring 80.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 also cared about McMillan's performance because it reflected on the union's image and thus could affect members' pocketbooks. It's at odds with management over a new contract, a dispute in arbitration.
To the intense relief of her colleagues, everything known so far about the crash suggests that McMillan acted properly. Federal safety investigators reported that she had pressed the red, mushroom-shaped braking device. Bluish heat burns on the train's wheels and track showed hard braking had begun 300 to 400 feet before impact.
After inspectors said they would check McMillan's cellphone records to make sure she hadn't been distracted by talking or texting -- reports that especially infuriated her colleagues -- the cellphone was discovered tucked safely in her backpack.
"She didn't run or jump out of her seat," said J.J. Nixon, a shop steward and union executive board member for rail operations. "We don't talk about the fear. We just pray it doesn't happen," he said. "We all think about it every day."
Timothy Harris of Accokeek, who retired in 2006 after 22 years as a train operator, said, "If she applied that brake 300 to 400 feet before impact, she had to have been paying attention."
A female Red Line operator with 10 years' experience, who knew McMillan, said she lived up to standards.
"She was a sweet young woman, but she was always a professional," the operator said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of Metro rules against speaking to the media without a supervisor's permission. She said McMillan "did the job of a veteran" despite just three months' experience driving Metro trains on her own.
Instead of an error by McMillan, all indications so far are that technology was at fault. McMillan's train was on automatic operation, similar to cruise control. Initial tests suggest that an electrical circuit, which could have blocked signals that would have alerted her to the stopped train ahead of her, had failed. "She didn't fail the system. The system failed her," several colleagues said.
The union argues that any technical failing would be management's responsibility. "We don't pick the equipment. They schedule the maintenance," David T. Robinson, a shop steward and board member for maintenance, said.
By Thursday, the union was calling on Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. to declare McMillan guiltless and proclaim her a hero who saved lives. They said his silence on the matter was hurting morale.
Catoe did as they asked at Friday's memorial service for McMillan at Temple of Praise in Southeast, where she worshiped. Catoe said Metro will honor McMillan because her action slowed the train and prevented the toll of dead and injured from being higher.
The church's leader, Bishop Glen A. Staples, whose congregants include many Metro employees, said: "It takes someone of incredible courage not to lose it in the face of danger. She was well trained and did her job to the 'T.' "
It's still possible, of course, that the National Transportation Safety Board will ultimately determine that McMillan could have braked sooner and saved more lives. Results of drug and alcohol tests are not in, but no one has suggested that was a problem for her.
Another Red Line train operator, who has nine years' experience, echoed many colleagues when she stressed that McMillan was motivated by a desire to help others.
"We are here to serve the public," like firefighters and ambulance drivers, she said. Asked if she worried about the risk of death, she said, "I knew that was my responsibility when I took the job."LOCAL FACT
Although the Red Line crash has justifiably raised concerns about Metro's safety, driving is still a lot more dangerous. Metrorail had no fatalities from 1996 to last Monday. In the same period, more than 6,000 people died in road accidents in the Washington region.
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org