FEW PEOPLE will move through this city in the next few days without thinking of those who died in the two accidents on Wednesday. That afternoon had a nightmarish quality: the weather, the claustrophobic evening rush in Washington in a snowstorm, the paralysis imposed first by the interruption of the region's most heavily traveled bridges followed, within half an hour, by the sudden blocking of its major subway line.
The technical investigations into these two disasters are now in the hands of competent boards of inquiry. But not all questions about that afternoon-- particularly in the case of Metro--are technical. The sequence of events deserves wider reflection.
It began with the snow and, as usual, the simultaneous decision by most federal agencies to send their employees home. Also as usual, a stampede of anxious people descended on an intricate transportation system still geared for the light traffic of early afternoon. On the streets, traffic signals were not yet programmed for the rush, and intersections were promptly jammed by drivers accustomed to longer intervals. Underground, Metro's platforms and trains were quickly crowded, and overcrowded. That premature overload was at least the setting in which the derailment occurred. The federal agencies have never been able to get together with Metro on a rational and orderly timetable of releases in bad weather to avoid predictable and dangerous commuter jams. Why?
Metro was slow in explaining the accident to its confused and increasingly apprehensive riders. Perhaps Metro itself was confused; it was the first fatal accident in its six years of operation. But Metro clearly needs to give more thought to its emergency procedures. There were inordinate delays in identifying the victims. It is entirely proper to hold up identification while families are notified, but in this case the holdup was excessive. A lot of people, hearing the news, knew that friends and family were traveling by Metro at that hour. When the authorities tell you who died, they are also telling you who did not. That's an essential public service.
In an emergency, the people of this city seem to do the hardest things best. The work by the rescuers--the professionals, and the occasional bystander --was heroic. Metro is entitled to riders' gratitude for quickly recommencing the best service possible on the crippled line. But attention to the smaller matters, the business of coping with the disruptions and the panicky appeals for explanations, are important in accidents that, like these, are spectacular and frightening to all who must travel, across the country or across the city.