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

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; B01

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.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who arrived just in time to make his remarks midway through the program, called the crash "one of the greatest tragedies ever to strike the nation's capital" and handed bouquets to the victims' families after Metro unveiled a bronze memorial plaque bearing the names of those killed.

Metro interim General Manager Richard Sarles pledged to rebuild Metro's safety "block by block" by getting "back to basics," such as buying new rail cars and buses, rebuilding tracks, securing more funding, modifying work practices and initiating more robust training. Metro also wants to create an environment "where any employee feels safe raising safety concerns," he said.

About 10:30 a.m., the group observed a moment of silence. But a Metro plan for a silent moment in stations, rail yard and administrative offices apparently failed to materialize on trips on the Red Line.

On a train traveling between Bethesda and Friendship Heights, the operator, who was barely audible, mentioned nothing about the crash or a remembrance as it rolled on with almost every seat taken by families, sunburned tourists in tank tops and a few commuters in business attire.

At 10:35 a.m., a girl of about 10 asked her mother about the photo of the crash and the two-inch "1 Year Later" headline on an Express newspaper that the woman held. "Those things happen -- just like cars can get in a crash," the woman told the girl and two other children who had squeezed into two seats. Several regular Red Line riders said they tried not to think about the crash and subsequent safety incidents, and others said they felt relatively safe.

"I feel very safe," said James Rife, a historian, as he rode the Red Line between his Rockville office and an appointment downtown. "I think they do the best they can with the budgets they have on hand."

Families of eight of those killed have joined in a legal case against Metro. A tentative trial date was set for September 2011, but Metro has sought to delay that until 2012, Hawkins said. McMillan's family is not a party to the suit.

Metro filed the petition to dismiss the suit May 24, on the grounds that Metro has "sovereign immunity" as a "quasi-government entity."

At the ceremony, several relatives and friends of victims, as well as public officials and other speakers, expressed concern that victims had been forgotten recently. "I don't doubt your sense of being abandoned," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, at the Metro ceremony.

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