By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 10:32 PM
On Monday, Metro unveiled its first memorial to employees killed "in the line of duty" since the Washington transit system opened in 1976, a black, polished granite pylon at Metro Center engraved with 26 names spanning three decades.
Family members of those killed voiced muted appreciation at the gesture, but several wondered why it took the transit agency so many years to commemorate the loss of their loved ones.
"I honestly don't know why it took so long. I kind of thought it went by the wayside," said Sophia Cherry, whose husband, Leslie Arvell Cherry, died Nov. 30, 2006, when he and another track worker were struck and killed by a train while inspecting tracks between the Huntington and Eisenhower Avenue stations.
The memorial "really doesn't do anything for me," Cherry said. "I'm very ambivalent about it. . . . It doesn't give me any closure."
Metro union chief Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents many of Metro's 10,000 employees, welcomed the recognition for fallen workers but said it was long overdue.
"Employees have wanted this for a long time," she said, explaining that discussions about such a memorial started in the early 1990s.
Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the memorial was approved by Metro's board of directors in July 2006, and Metro General Manager Richard Sarles "directed staff to advance the project" after taking the job of interim chief last spring.
The pace of worker fatalities has accelerated sharply over the past five years, when 10 of the employee deaths occurred, as Metro's safety record has deteriorated.
A string of derailments and fatal accidents has led to an unprecedented number of investigations of Metro by the National Transportation Safety Board, three of which are currently open. NTSB found that Metro's lax safety culture and a failure of safety oversight contributed to the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, including train operator Jeanice McMillan.
Jeter said it will take time to improve Metro's safety practices. "Cultural changes don't happen overnight," she said. "We've had a year with no deaths; that's not really a lot of time."
The most recent deaths occurred a year ago, when automatic train control technicians Jeffrey Garrard and Sung Duk Oh were struck and killed by a three-ton truck moving backward on tracks near Rockville station.
Kyung Kim, one of Oh's four children, said she understood from the NTSB investigation underway that multiple safety lapses were involved in her father's death.
"My understanding is that there were general safety measures that were supposed to be in place, including communication between the work teams," she said in a phone interview Friday, adding that NTSB had contacted her family about the incident.
"All these communication measures sort of all failed that night. It was more than one thing," she said, not only that the truck did not have a beeping signal while moving in reverse.
Kim recalled her father as a dedicated employee who worked for Metro for 11 years. "He worked long hours. He did everything asked of him," she said. She said the family was not attending the unveiling Monday because her mother recently had surgery.
"I can appreciate the thought that goes into the creation of that type of memorial," she said. "We just regret that there are as many names as there are."
A crowd of family members, union representatives and Metro officials gathered at a Metro Center mezzanine at 12th and F streets for the brief unveiling ceremony, in which Metro officials placed before the pylon a wreath of white roses and chrysanthemums wrapped in a ribbon bearing the word "remembrance."
Family members made paper etchings of the names, and some cried while recalling their loved ones.
"When [the accident] first happened there was nothing going on," said Mary Callands, whose husband, Darel Callands, a train operator, died during a snowstorm Jan. 6, 1996. His train was unable to stop on icy tracks and streaked past the platform at Shady Grove station, crashing into another train.
"It helps because it recognizes this," said Callands, wiping away tears. "I don't know why it took them so long."
After the crowd dispersed, a handful of curious passersby and a Metro employee stopped to look at the pylon, which has room for additional names, but most people paid little attention to it.
"Initially people may notice but, in time, no one will," Cherry said. "Maybe a few tourists will look at it . . . or they may think it is just another pylon in the station."