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Three Minutes to Fort Totten
A chaplain from Walter Reed. A doctor from Walter Reed. The owner of a new hair salon. An architect. On a Metro train, in one terrifying instant and its aftermath, their lives became forever intertwined. This is their story.

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

He heard the familiar whine of a Metro train approaching the platform, and Tom Baker decided to run for it. The next train was scheduled to arrive at Takoma Station in two minutes, another in six minutes and yet another in 10. But it was the first Monday of summer, and Baker had left work early with a weightlifting routine to complete and an overgrown garden to tend. A doctor at Walter Reed with an emergency pager affixed to his waist, Baker had learned to schedule and protect every minute of his free time. This was his train.

Baker, 47, bounded up the escalator, two steps at once, until he reached the empty platform. The train idled on his left, its doors still open. The operator, a 42-year-old named Jeanice McMillan, stuck her head out the window and watched Baker run toward her. She was an hour into her final shift of the week, seven loops on the Red Line away from going home to a son who just had returned from college. But she smiled and held open the door, and that was how the final passenger made it onto Car 1079, the first car of Metro Train 112, headed south toward downtown Washington.

An automated voice greeted Baker as he slid into a seat directly behind the operator.

"Doors closing."

Train 112: a nondescript Metro train, six cars in all. Car 1079: at least 16 people scattered across 68 seats, lost in their own worlds late on a Monday afternoon. Baker stood up again. If he walked to the rear of the car, he would be closer to his exit at Fort Totten. He would shave nine seconds off his commute home. That seemed important.

Baker tossed his blue backpack over his shoulder and walked the full 75 feet to the back of the car, passing all the other passengers on his way. There was a dentist reading a book about golf; a college student closing his eyes after the fourth day of an internship; a young architect fiddling with his cellphone; a 17-year-old checking her makeup in a small mirror before applying extra lip gloss.

Near the front of the train, a 23-year-old named LaVonda King was on her daily trip to pick up two young sons from day care. She had just finished a cellphone conversation with her mother, who suggested that King print advertising fliers for her new hair salon. A good idea, King agreed. She already had the keys to the shop and a name she had daydreamed about since high school: "LaVonda's House of Beauty."

In the far rear of the car, Dave Bottoms listened to an iPod. A chaplain who had just finished his first day on the pastoral staff at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bottoms, 39, felt scattered from the stress of a new job. Wasn't today his dog's seventh birthday? Did his new BlackBerry work? Were there any leftovers in the fridge for a quick dinner? Bottoms reached into his backpack and grabbed a photocopy of a homily by St. Irenaeus. Maybe, Bottoms thought, a little reading would quiet his mind.

Baker stopped walking when he reached the chaplain and stood near him, leaning against a wall by the rear exit of the first car. Baker had moved from Texas to Washington four years ago, bought a downtown condo and sold his car. So liberating. He loved the predictability of Metro. It was 4:57 p.m., and Train 112 lurched into motion, with Car 1079 at the lead. Baker grabbed a pole to steady himself and turned to face the door he planned to use to exit the train. He would make it to the gym by 5:45, probably home by 7:30. A good night ahead. Three minutes to Fort Totten.

* * *

As Baker looked out the window, Bottoms felt the train roll into motion but never bothered to look up from his reading. Ride the Metro long enough and it becomes like sleepwalking: Trees on the right, a blur of graffiti on the left, a subtle bump-bump-bump of the car so predictable that it somehow becomes relaxing. The operator came over the speaker system and said something about a delay, but his iPod muffled her announcement. The train slowed and accelerated, stopped and started, and all the while he kept reading.

But then, panicked shouts came from the front of the car.

"Oh no. Watch out!" one passenger shouted.

"Oh my God!" screamed another.

Bottoms instinctively grabbed the handrail of the seat in front of him, heard a shrieking crunch of metal, was thrown forward in his seat and saw something coming toward him that at first didn't make any sense. It was a jumble of dust, shoes, glass, seats, carpeting, Metro maps, metal poles and people. It was the front half of Car 1079. But in the first instant, it appeared as a rolling, roaring wave that was coming closer and closer. Carpeting near Bottoms's feet began to rise up and crumple like tissue paper. The wave swept within 15 feet in front of Bottoms . . . 10 feet . . . 7. A studied theologian and an experienced chaplain, he recited a simple prayer.

"God, make it stop."

"God, make it stop."

The wave crested against the seat directly in front of Bottoms, and a cloud of dust enveloped him as the train rocked to a halt. Bottoms stood up, scanned the car and tried to understand what had just happened. Had the train derailed? Had it fallen off a bridge? Had it hit something? He looked in front of him. Where was the floor? He looked up. Where was the roof? Why, as the cloud of dust settled, was he sitting at an incline, staring at a cloudless blue sky, and at another train stretching down the tracks, and at a man on the roof of that train covered in soot and dangling his legs over the side of the car as if perched on the edge of a swimming pool?

Chaos now, everywhere. Jamie Jiao, the man sitting on the roof of the train, who moments before had been the college intern lost in thought near the front of Car 1079, felt something wet under his chin and realized he was bleeding. Baker, the doctor, searched what was left of the floor for his glasses. Brianna Milstead, 17, frantically gathered the scattered contents of her makeup kit. A young woman looked down to see that the tattoo on her ankle was gone, along with most of the skin on her lower leg. A 15-year-old boy squirmed in his seat and froze suddenly when he realized that his legs were stuck between the buckled floor and jagged metal.

Bottoms sat back down in his seat, stunned. All at once, he heard the sounds. A wailing rush of hysteria.

"Mommy! Mommy! Ohmygod."

"Somebody help! Please. My foot's stuck."

"Baby, where are you? Are you okay? Baby? Baby?"

He understood now that he was in the only section of the car that remained intact. Six or seven other passengers were there, too, and in front of them was the pile of wreckage, from which a new sound emerged. It was a young woman's voice, quiet at first and then louder, until finally it eclipsed the rest of the noise and echoed off the walls, a chilling, panicky shriek.

"I'm here.

"I'm here.

"Please don't leave me."

* * *

Bottoms crawled up the pile toward the voice, scraping his knees against jagged glass and metal. He paused for a second, worried that his extra weight might cause the pile to shift, but what was an extra 150 pounds on a mountain of wreckage? Two tours as a chaplain in Iraq had instilled in him the instinct to comfort the injured and dying. Years ago, when he first joined the service, a mentor had told him: "You don't let anyone suffer alone."

Elsewhere in the car, passengers let their instincts take over. The 17-year-old, who was prone to panic attacks, curled into a fetal position on her seat. Baker scanned the car and assessed the injured: Some had head gashes and broken bones, and he thought they would need hospitalization. The 15-year-old boy pinned between seats probably had a broken femur, and moving him would risk causing a spinal fracture or a bleeding artery. The girl yelling beneath the rubble -- she was the most worrisome of all.

Brandon Burgess, 26, an architect, saw the remains of Car 1079 in hard lines and schematics. The pile of wreckage was probably five feet high and spanned the width of the car. The rear exit doors would not open because a bulkhead had collapsed. The side doors were all blocked or jammed. There was no way out.

Near what had once been the center of the car, a muscular 19-year-old named Daryl Smith Jr. glanced down, saw that his foot was trapped and felt a surge of adrenaline. He looked over at his girlfriend, who was bloody and crying. "Baby! Baby, we have to move," Smith said. He yanked his leg loose, picked up his girlfriend and carried her to the rear of the car. Smoke and dust filled his lungs. He needed air. He needed space. There was no choice. He would create a new exit.

Smith had boarded the train in black slacks and a tucked-in polo shirt, an ensemble inspired by his recent reading of a book called "Dress for Success." He had a new job as a recruiter for a financial planning firm and was en route to distribute company fliers at the zoo. He had wanted to look good. But now a shirt was just a shirt, and he pulled off the polo and wrapped it around the tattoo of the word "blessed" on his right forearm. He stepped up to the rear door of the car, cocked back his arm and swung.

Other passengers worried that Smith would break his arm before he would be able to break the window. Maybe, Smith thought, but so what? Maybe Car 1079 would catch fire and explode. Maybe another train, barreling obliviously down the tracks, would add another nightmare to this pileup. He would not wait to find out. His knuckles ached. Another passenger pointed out a fire extinguisher near his feet. He picked it up and hammered it against the glass.

Again.

Again.

A small crack appeared. The passengers saw it and cheered. Smith continued to swing. The crack spread across the window like a spider web. Burgess, the architect, ducked behind a barrier in case the fire extinguisher exploded from the force of the blows. He guessed that the window was probably made from tempered glass and covered by film coating, built to withstand collisions at up to 59 mph. But as Smith swung, Burgess started to yell like he was watching a football game. "Yeah, you've got it. You've got it. Keep going. You're the man!"

Finally, the crack reached the upper right corner of the window, and the glass popped out. Smith scooped up his girlfriend and lifted her through the open frame. The panic-stricken 17-year-old followed. Then the dentist, limping gingerly on a broken foot. And then Smith himself, bloody and shirtless, with a gash in his head that would take six staples to close. They were out. They were free.

Some of them.

"Help me!" the young woman in the pile cried.

Baker, the doctor, slumped against a wall near the rear of the car, feeling helpless. He had tried to dig through the pile of debris toward the woman, but he worried that one wrong shift in the pile would only make things worse.

Bottoms, meanwhile, knelt on top of the pile, looking through it, trying to spot the stranger underneath.

"Please don't go," she said.

"I'm staying," he said.

* * *

The chaplain leaned over, his face inches from the top of the debris, and spoke into the darkness. He said the first thing that came to his mind.

"We can pray," he said.

"Okay," she said.

Bottoms spoke the Lord's Prayer. He had recited it thousands of times, but its six simple sentences still resonated within him. "Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name," he said. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

There was familiarity and comfort in those opening lines. Only an hour earlier, Bottoms had visited and prayed with about a dozen injured patients at Walter Reed, a part of his daily routine. He believed that prayer fortified the injured and pacified the dying. During a year in Iraq, he had watched over a three-bed medical clinic that sometimes overflowed with 30 patients, and those experiences returned to him in the train car: dying soldiers to whom he had administered last rites; a badly burned Iraqi man who died on the street in Bottoms's lap.

Bottoms was an Army brat from birth, trained for trauma. In Car 1079, his voice remained steady and calm.

The young woman's voice pitched and trembled. She had graduated from Largo High School in 2003, tried a few years of college in Ohio and then returned home to attend beauty school. Her mother did hair, so she decided to do hair. Fashionable and girlish, she had compiled so many outfits that she kept one closet filled with unworn garments that still bore their tags.

"Please," she said now. "I'm dying."

"You're not alone," Bottoms said. "What's your name?"

"LaVonda," she said.

"LaVonda," he said. He wanted to write it down. Another passenger handed him paper and a pen.

"Can you spell it?" he asked.

"L-a-v-o-n-d-a," she said.

"Okay. Great. And what's your last name?"

She moaned, so Bottoms repeated his question. On the second try, LaVonda King tried to spell out her last name, but her reply was sporadic, and her voice was quieter. Bottoms wrote down K-L-I-N-G on his piece of paper, adding an extra letter. "Okay," he said. "Good."

From his perch against the wall and on top of a pile of rubble, Bottoms looked out the window and spotted a police officer standing across the train tracks. Bottoms banged hard against the glass, quick jabs with the side of his fist, but the police officer walked in the opposite direction. Bottoms banged one final time in frustration. Why couldn't the officer hear him? LaVonda King was only moaning now.

"Hold on, LaVonda," Bottoms said.

He had been told once in Iraq that hearing was the last of the senses to fail before death, and he remembered that now. Maybe, somewhere beneath the chairs, carpeting and glass, LaVonda was still listening. Maybe she could hear him, even now.

"LaVonda, are you bleeding?"

No reply.

"Keep talking to me, LaVonda."

No reply.

"LaVonda."

Nothing.

Bottoms looked behind him at what remained of Car 1079. Baker was comforting the 15-year-old boy with a trapped leg while the young architect looked on. Everyone else had exited. Bottoms looked back down into the pile.

"LaVonda," he said. "I'm still right here."

* * *

The first rescuer entered Car 1079 at 5:20 p.m., climbing in through the makeshift window Daryl Smith had created. Lt. Tony Carroll approached the pile of debris and immediately evaluated the scene: a lifeless body with blood pooling near the head on the roof of the other train; two women visible in the wreckage beneath him, and other victims surely hidden underfoot.

"Okay," he called to the three firefighters rushing in behind him. "Let's get to it."

The rescuers moved quickly, casting away seats, wielding hacksaws and cutting away twisted pieces of metal. They started to free the 15-year-old boy, and Baker left his side and climbed out the exit. Only then did he think about how unfortunate he was to have made this train, and how fortunate he was to have moved from a seat in the front to the back.

A fireman sifted through a special Metro rescue bag, carried on every firetruck, which contained keys to unlock doors and specialized prying tools. One team of firefighters began working from the right side of the pile, another from the left. After 10 minutes, they cleared enough debris to reveal LaVonda King, dressed in designer jeans and a blouse, lying motionless against a pair of seats.

You don't look at the faces, Carroll had warned his men.

Bottoms looked.

LaVonda King was slight and pretty, with her hair done up nicely in a bun, still styled from an evening of celebrating with friends at Wild Wings on Friday night. She had gone there after picking up the keys to LaVonda's House of Beauty and danced late into the night. This was more than a new business, she had told friends. This was the career that would earn her money to make a trip to Atlantic City, to buy a car, to rent an apartment for her two young sons, ages 2 and 3. This was her beginning.

Bottoms knew he needed to leave, but he had to do one last thing. He reached toward LaVonda and touched his fingers to her arm. He thought he detected a pulse, but he was in the way of the firefighters now. They had 12 hours of digging ahead, a long night that would uncover a total of seven bodies under the pile. Those would be the hours in which Bottoms, Baker and the others would finally come to understand that they had crashed into another Metro train, that their car had climbed onto the back of that train as it disintegrated, that it was miraculous they had survived.

At that moment, though, what Bottoms knew was the firefighters needed him to clear out. He picked up his backpack and iPod and followed the architect through the window, and that was how the last living passenger exited Car 1079.

Staff writers William Wan, Theola Labbé-DeBose, James Hohmann, Josh White and Allison Klein contributed to this report.

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