Grief, bitterness at ceremony marking year anniversary of D.C. Metro crash

Ceremony near site of last year's fatal accident marks "the most tragic day in the history of Metro." The victims' families spoke about their tragic losses and the need for Metro safety improvements.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Metro remembrance ceremony for last June's Red Line crash was supposed to serve as a tribute to the victims, survivors and rescue personnel. Instead, it ended in bitterness Tuesday as the families of some victims lashed out at the transit agency.

Metro "has never acknowledged: 'We've made a mistake. We're sorry,' " said Kenneth Hawkins, whose brother, Dennis Hawkins, was killed in the crash.

Tawanda Brown, mother of LaVonda "Nikki" King, 23, who died in the crash, accused Metro of shirking its responsibility and failing to resolve the underlying technical issues that contributed to the accident. "They are responsible for our loved one's death," Brown said. "But they aren't even answering the 100 problems identified by the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board], and we're still getting on the trains."

For the transit workers union, Tuesday's crash anniversary was an opportunity to pay tribute to 14 Metro workers who died on the job besides Jeanice McMillan, the train operator in the June crash. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 held a two-hour dinner and candlelight vigil for the men and women at the union headquarters in Forestville. Among the workers honored by the union and family members were Jeffrey Garrard and Sung Oh, track workers who were killed in a Red Line accident Jan. 27 when a Metro utility vehicle backed into them.

As the ceremony honoring those killed in the June crash was taking place, the legal battle between Metro and the victims' families continued. Last month, Metro filed a petition in U.S. District Court to dismiss a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit filed by most of the families against the transit agency. On Tuesday, attorneys for the families were in court filing opposition to the petition, Kenneth Hawkins said.

Metro's legal stance "makes this day of remembrance disingenuous to say the least," Hawkins said. The petition "demonstrates the cynicism and blatant contempt [Metro] has toward the victims, families, and justice."

The motion to dismiss was "partial" and "a routine step in such a lawsuit," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein wrote in an e-mail. "Even if granted, this would not deprive anyone of their day in court or their right to a jury trial. Neither of our motions separately or together seeks dismissal of the suit against Metro in its entirety."

Metro seeks to "allow the case to be resolved or tried as soon as possible," she said. Eight passengers and a train operator died and dozens of riders were injured when a Red Line train slammed into another train near the Fort Totten Station shortly after 5 p.m. a year ago.

Tuesday's ceremony, held under a large white tent near the station and attended by about 300 people, had poignant moments. Roxy Carter, a material support specialist at Metro, choked up as she began to perform a song.

Jordan McMillan, son of Metro train operator Jeanice McMillan, who was hailed as a heroine at the ceremony for slamming on the brakes of her train, struggled to speak but ultimately delivered some of the most touching remarks of the morning, promising to finish school and support his relatives. "My grandparents, they will be taken care of, they will never have to worry about anything ever in life, and I promise everybody that," said McMillan, 20, who has suffered from depression, which led him to lose focus in school over the past year. The crowd applauded.

"God brought me too far to leave me right here," said McMillan, rephrasing a gospel radio line that he said helped him fall asleep Monday night.

Peter Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration, praised McMillan and his mother. "If it were not for your mother's heroic acts, one tent would not be enough for this ceremony," he said.

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