Amid Metro brawl, family's night out turns into 'pandemonium'

By Valerie Strauss and Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; A01

It was bad enough when Kimberly Hay's family, riding the Metro to the Kennedy Center on Friday night to watch "Mary Poppins," saw three youths assault a terrified young rider reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" by aiming an aerosol can at his face and spraying.

But the brawl they witnessed on the way home several hours later, which involved at least 70 youths fighting each other in a frenzy, left Hay's nieces "freaked out" and the 43-year-old wary of riding the Metro in off-peak hours.

"It was pandemonium," said Hay, who had traveled to the District from Charles County with her husband, sister-in-law, 25-year-old niece with special needs and two grandnieces, 11 and 14.

"We were pushing our kids out of the way, trying to plaster ourselves against the wall so nobody would hurt us. There were five fights right in front of us. . . . Metro is very accessible but not safe all the time. I don't know if I would ride it again in non-rush hours."

It was the second reported big fight involving young Metro riders in the nation's capital this summer, and some elected officials called Sunday for better security and new approaches to deal with the problem.

The melee highlights the difficulties authorities have in dealing with teen violence and how it can encroach on a Metro system that routinely carries commuters, families, tourists and late-night revelers.

Metro Transit Police were investigating the incident and reviewing videotape of the fracas, which began about 11 p.m. at the Gallery Place Station, Metro officials said. A large group of battling youths boarded Metro cars and continued to fight as they spilled onto the platform for the Green and Yellow lines at L'Enfant Plaza Station, terrifying other riders and causing a stampede.

Two 16-year-olds were charged, one with disorderly conduct and the other with simple assault. Angelo Nicholas, 18, of the District was charged with disorderly conduct.

Five people hurt in the fight and ensuing crush were taken to hospitals, a Metro spokeswoman said, and an unknown number of others were injured.

Chris Davis, 27, of the District was one of them. He said he was about to get onto a train at L'Enfant Plaza when he heard people running out of it and screaming.

"I thought it was a terrorist attack," said Davis, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I turned the other way, and I was trampled."

'Madness' ensues

Violence among young people during the summer is a longstanding problem in the District, and it is the reason there is a curfew that requires city residents 17 and younger to be off the streets by midnight.

In early June, a fight that started on a Red Line train left a 16-year-old boy beaten unconscious by a group of people who had attacked him over his Air Jordan shoes, the boy's mother said. Union Station was closed for about 30 minutes after a Transit Police officer responded and was backed up by more than a dozen other officers.

Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said she had no information to release Sunday about the melee Friday, which began in the Northwest Washington neighborhood near Gallery Place Station, a teen hangout filled with restaurants, clubs, a movie theater and a bowling alley.

A source with knowledge of the investigation said that transit officials were looking into the possibility that the youths had begun to fight on the street outside the station and that D.C. police officers tried to break them up. The youths moved into the station, boarded Metro cars and fought as they spilled out at L'Enfant Plaza. It was there that Hay and her family were waiting to board a train home.

Hay said that when she was four feet from the entrance to a Metro car, a woman next to her was pushed to the ground by people pouring out of the car, which had filled with what she thought was smoke. At her feet, she said, was a substance that looked like shaving cream but smelled like ammonia.

Two Metro Transit Police officers were chasing people, she said, but no other officers arrived for more than 15 minutes. Hay said she called 911, although when more officers did arrive, none of them questioned her or other passengers.

Hay said that at one point she saw seven or eight youths beating someone on the ground, kicking him and using a cane-like weapon to hit him. Other teens ran around the platform, apparently targeting people to attack.

Davis, who was sent to the station floor by the crowd, said the people running from the train were shouting about guns, but he said he did not see any weapons. Metro officials said no weapons were found.

When Davis managed to pick himself up, he saw that his leg was bloody.

"I thought I might have been shot," he said. He went to United Medical Center, where he learned that his shin was broken and that he had a large bruise on his leg. He is on crutches.

"I've been here for six years and taking Metro, and I've never seen any madness ensue like that," he said. "It was very frightening."

Possible solutions

The fight Friday raised concerns that police and transit authorities aren't doing enough to protect riders, especially at higher-risk times and locations. D.C. police and Metro officials declined to comment Sunday.

"I think the police should be looking at a very focused strategy targeted on that problem," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who heads the public safety committee.

He rejected an idea raised Saturday by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who suggested extending the city's teen curfew. Mendelson said such a move would not have prevented Friday's fight because of timing and the ages of many of the participants.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who had supported a move by Wells in June to broaden the curfew, said it was not the answer to the kind of problem that erupted Friday. Graham also said there needs to be better communication between D.C. police and Transit Police.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) called for non-police measures to the fight.

"I think we need to look at other strategies and target critical places where young people gather," Thomas said.

The D.C. Guardian Angels, a public safety patrol group whose members carry police radios, have said they will be patrolling Green Line trains twice a week, from Fort Totten and Congress Heights, between 8 and 11:30 p.m.

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