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Victims remembered on 10th anniversary of Metro’s deadliest crash

Elizabeth Wherley Regan, center, greets Tawanda Brown, left, during a memorial ceremony 10 years after the Red Line crash that killed nine people. Brown’s daughter, LaVonda King, and Wherley’s parents, Ann and David Wherley, were killed in the June 22, 2009 crash. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Carolyn Jenkins’s grandson, Raja Williams. This version has been corrected.

On the 10th anniversary of the deadliest rail crash in Metro history, family members of the victims, transit officials and politicians gathered Saturday to recall the events of June 22, 2009, when a Red Line train slammed into a stopped train near Fort Totten, killing nine people, including the train operator.

Photos of the victims hung from the New Hampshire Avenue bridge in Northeast Washington, over Red Line tracks, as a reminder of how critical attention to safety is.

Some called Saturday’s ceremony a celebration of their loved ones and said they were at peace with the loss. The children of those killed read poems and cried, recounting the birthdays, graduations and other major milestones their parents had missed but would be proud of nevertheless. Others said they hoped the end of the decade would mark a new era for an improved transit system.

“They still have issues, but they have made their turn,” said Carolyn Jenkins, 62, whose daughter, Veronica DuBose, was on the way to nursing school when the crash occurred. She left behind two young children.

“It hurts me to my heart that my daughter was killed on that train,” said Jenkins, who is raising her grandchildren. “But it’s good to see they are trying to do what they should have been doing.”

The crash, which occurred at the height of the evening rush hour, between the Takoma and Fort Totten Metro stations, was the worst in the transit agency’s 43-year history. In addition to the nine people killed, 80 were injured.

“It is a very sad day for all of us, for the families and for members of Metro and the community at large. It reminds us how important safety is to all of us. It is something that I wake up every day thinking about,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at the ceremony.

A look back at the worst crash in Metro history

Investigators determined that a faulty track circuit made the stationary train invisible to the Automatic Train Control system of Train 112, causing it to proceed at 55 mph. By the time train operator Jeanice McMillan spotted the train in front of her and applied the emergency brake, it was too late to prevent the crash.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board found that contributing to the crash was Metro’s “lack of a safety culture” and failure to “effectively maintain and monitor the performance of its automatic train control system.”

Metro’s failure to replace or retrofit its crash-vulnerable 1000-series rail cars also contributed to the death toll, the NTSB said. Metro retired the fleet — the system’s original rail cars — in 2017.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since that day where your lives were changed forever and an entire community and region came together to grieve with you,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told the families Saturday. Bowser was a D.C. Council member at the time of the crash and later became a member of the Metro board of directors.

“We offered you prayers then, but also made a number of commitments to make sure that we would do all that we could to make sure that our transit authority was a safe way for everybody in our region and our visitors to travel, and we have committed every day since to doing exactly that,” Bowser said.

The crash spurred several safety reforms and set the stage for a multibillion-dollar rebuilding program that focused not only on buying new, safer rail cars, but also rebuilding tracks, modifying work practices and initiating more robust training.

Wiedefeld said the system is safer a decade later and its commitment to creating a culture of safety continues. Ongoing track work, including major closures in the rail system, though inconvenient to customers, are necessary to achieve greater safety, he said.

“The system is safe, but we need to do a lot more work. A lot of it is preventive maintenance and maintenance related that supports safety,” Wiedefeld said. “But if there was an unsafe system we would not run trains or buses. We have shown that in the past.”

In the wake of the crash, Metro disabled the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) technology which launched when Metro did in 1976. A decade later, it remains unclear if the transit agency will return to it, a common feature for transit systems around the world. For riders, returning to ATO could mean smoother rides and a more efficient journey — and perhaps a few seconds saved on their commutes.

Metro’s plans to return to ATO have fallen through in recent years, and it’s unlikely the system will be back up in the second half of this year as previously announced.

“Return to ATO has been moved down on the priority list to allow Metro’s engineering team to focus on safety and reliability projects that will have a greater impact on the customer experience,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

And safety is what’s most important to the families who gathered Saturday at Legacy Memorial Park, a community garden that opened in 2015 at the foot of the New Hampshire Avenue bridge where the collision took place. There, nine granite columns rise from grass enclosures, each inscribed with the name of one of the victims: DuBose, 29; McMillan, 42; Dennis Hawkins, 64; Ann Wherley, 62; Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr., 62; Mary “Mandy” Doolittle, 59; Ana Fernandez, 40; Cameron Williams, 37; and LaVonda “Nikki” King, 23.

In honoring the victims of the 2009 Metro crash, nine columns are erected

Each family honored their loved one in their own way. Some wore T-shirts bearing the picture and name of their loved one, others wore a special color or wrote poems.

Ken Hawkins, whose brother, Dennis, was killed after leaving the elementary school where he taught and was on the way to church, said he is no longer sad about the incident, knowing his brother is in heaven. But he also doesn’t want people to forget it happened.

“But remember,” he said, “if you fail to put safety first, this is the outcome . . . Until we recognize this as a community, not just Metro, but we as individual citizens of the community, say that safety is a priority and safety must come first, there will be other memorials popping up throughout the area.”

Elizabeth Wherley Regan, who lost her parents, Ann and David, came with her extended family from the Carolinas, Maryland and New Jersey, and her two children, ages 7 and 10, who didn’t get to know their grandparents. Her father had recently retired as head of the D.C. National Guard and the couple was headed back from volunteer training that day.

“It makes me feel happy that people have not forgotten,” she said Saturday. She and her family ride Metro when they visit D.C., she said, but never the end cars.

Jenkins, who moved to Culpeper with her two grandchildren after the crash, drove in with a dozen other relatives to mark the anniversary. Raja, 18, who is heading to college in the fall, wrote a song for his mother. Ava, now 11, read a poem.

A million times I’ve needed you.

A million times I have cried.

If love alone could have saved you, you never would have died.

In life I loved you dearly; in death I love you still.

My heart is broken, but you didn’t go alone; part of me went with you the day God took you home.