On Friday, family members, politicians and transit officials gathered near the site of the deadliest accident in Metro’s history for a ceremony on its third anniversary. As speakers recalled the events of June 22, 2009 — when one Red Line train slammed into another, killing nine people — some cried. Others embraced.
But many also called Friday’s ceremony a “celebration,” albeit a solemn one. Victims’ family members, some who hadn’t seen one another in a year, hugged, kissed and smiled for photographs. No one wore black; many wore white.
“We chose white to symbolize hope and strength and courage,” said Tawanda Brown, mother of crash victim LaVonda “Nikki” King. “This is a day of joy,” Brown said while blinking away welling tears.
The crash, which took place between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations, killed a train operator and eight passengers and injured dozens. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed faulty track circuits for failing to detect the presence of a stationary train ahead.
On Friday, flowers lay near that memorial as the District dedicated a second plaque — this one on the New Hampshire Avenue bridge, which overlooks the tracks where the crash occurred.
“I feel a big relief,” said Carol Jenkins, mother of victim Veronica “Ronnie” DuBose. “Having to go to Fort Totten and having to pay to see the memorial . . .”
She trailed off, shaking her head. “Having it here, where it happened — it’s a relief.”
The new plaque, which is bronze with golden lettering, lists the victims’ names and bears a quotation attributed to the ancient Greek orator and statesman Pericles: “What we leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
While more than 100 people were recalling the tragedy on Friday morning, Red Line trains passed without incident. Air conditioning hummed as wheels clicked on tracks. One man in slacks and a dress shirt read a newspaper he found on the train. Another snoozed nearby under the cover of a floppy hat. The train crawled along; the conductor apologized for the delay, blaming a “switch problem ahead.”
Less than a mile from the Fort Totten station, the District’s poet laureate, Dolores Kendrick, recited an elegy at the ceremony. She spoke of the “somber sounds of metal upon metal, flesh upon flesh” and the victims — “the fallen who swallowed doom.”
Her audience, broiling under the midday sun, wiped tears and perspiration from their faces.
As Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recited the names of the dead — train operator Jeanice McMillan and passengers Mary “Mandy” Doolittle; Ana Fernandez; Dennis Hawkins; Ann Wherley and her husband, David Wherley; Cameron Williams; DuBose; and King — one woman sighed audibly and leaned against a folding chair for support. She said she didn’t know any of the victims but lived nearby and crossed the bridge every day.
“That’s just beautiful,” she said.
Gray said that the next step in the memorial process is a $1 million memorial park, which would include seating, artwork and a play area. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities is accepting artists’ proposals for the project.
The city proposed installing the memorial park on land at South Dakota and New Hampshire avenues in Northeast, but some residents in that area have objected.
In May, the South Manor Neighborhood Association, representing about 70 homeowners, wrote to the mayor, saying it feared that the memorial would create noise, traffic and crime and exacerbate public sexual activity in the community.
No one addressed that controversy directly on Friday, but Brown asked that the community “look beyond their back yards,” and Gray said he hoped that the park, wherever it ends up, will be an “amenity” for the neighborhood.
Also Friday, no one spoke of the pending lawsuits that several families of victims and survivors have brought against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
“My mood today is very grateful,” said Brown, who is a plaintiff in one of those suits. “This is a moment I can find joy in.”
“What do you remember about Mommy?” she asked suddenly of her grandsons Andre and Emmanuel. Emmanuel, who was 2 when his mother died, cocked his head to the side and displayed the family name — “KING” — shaved into his hair.
“I remember I loved her,” he said.