Those who knew Robert Cunningham weren’t surprised the 64-year-old Metro power department worker confronted a gunman during a shooting rampage while trying to protect a woman and others on a train platform.
“This is the thing with Bob,” said Mary Whaley, a neighbor of Cunningham’s for more than 30 years. “I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, and I don’t mean that as if he would hurt anybody. He sees an injustice, and he wants something done about it. I’m not surprised one bit that he would step forward to say, ‘Look, you know, you can’t be harassing this lady.’”
A day after police said Cunningham put himself between a woman and a gunman who was terrorizing passengers at the Potomac Avenue Metro station in Southeast Washington, a makeshift memorial of bouquets and cards sprung up to honor actions that many called heroic. Meanwhile, transit union officials continued to push for more police officers on buses, saying they have long warned Metro of escalating attacks on transit workers since the start of the pandemic.
The fresh warnings came as Metro’s board met Thursday in a previously unplanned closed session to discuss safety issues, although transit officials didn’t discuss the specifics of their meeting.
The attempts by Cunningham and another Metro employee to disrupt the gunman, as well as the actions of train riders who took him down on the platform, earned praise from officials across the Washington region. It also highlighted the ubiquitous nature of shootings across the country and the question many struggled to answer: how to stop them.
“They saved lives and that’s to be commended,” said Metro General Manager Randy Clarke. “But the fact that our citizens have to intervene with armed gunmen is disturbing to me.”
The shooting is the most recent incident to draw attention to safety concerns on Metro’s buses and trains this year, a span that includes the January shooting of two young children exiting a bus and a 17-year-old killed outside a Congress Heights bus bay.
D.C. police are continuing to investigate what led 31-year-old Isaiah Trotman, of Southeast Washington, to allegedly shoot three people, who police say appeared to be randomly chosen near the end of Wednesday’s morning commute. He is being held in a D.C. jail without bail, and is being charged with first-degree murder while armed, kidnapping while armed and assault with a dangerous weapon.
Investigators said the violent spree began onboard a Metrobus traveling from Maryland to the Potomac Avenue Metro station, when Trotman allegedly held a gun to a rider’s head, chased the victim off the bus and shot the man in the legs before heading down an escalator into the station, where he allegedly shot one Metro customer. Another was found injured nearby. Police said Trotman had accosted a woman on the platform while brandishing a gun when Cunningham tried to intervene, then was fatally shot. A group of riders then tackled Trotman, detaining him until police arrived.
Metro officials said the rampage hasn’t shaken their confidence in the security of the transit system. The agency’s board met in an emergency executive session Thursday morning to discuss safety-related issues. The meeting was not open to the public and Metro spokeswoman Kristie Swink Benson said she didn’t know what was discussed.
Representatives of the transit union that represents most Metro workers also met Thursday morning. They had previously called on Metro to put more police officers onboard buses and at stations. Cunningham’s death appeared to strengthen those calls.
“The recent rise of attacks on riders and workers alike is deeply disturbing and must be stopped,” the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 said in a statement. “As such, Local 689 calls on public officials at Metro and throughout the region to immediately review safety protocol and procedures to ensure that public transit is safe for all.”
Elected leaders in the Washington region hailed Cunningham’s effort to protect passengers, expressing concern over the frequency of violence on the nation’s third-largest transit system.
Devastated to learn of the death of Robert Cunningham, a brave WMATA employee who lost his life protecting a Metro rider from a violent assailant. We're all grieving for Robert, and our thoughts and our love are with his family during this challenging time.— Rep. Jamie Raskin (@RepRaskin) February 1, 2023
“Robert Cunningham is a hero,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a tweet. “My deepest condolences go out to his loved ones.”
Riding the Blue Line home and thinking of @wmata mechanic Robert Cunningham and his family.— Justin Wilson (@justindotnet) February 1, 2023
Mr. Cunningham heroically intervened today to protect a customer at the Potomac Avenue Station and became another victim of gun violence.
A tragic and preventable loss of life. pic.twitter.com/RzcyhNXPNI
“Riding the Blue Line home and thinking of [Metro] mechanic Robert Cunningham and his family,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) tweeted. “Mr. Cunningham heroically intervened today to protect a customer at the Potomac Avenue Station and became another victim of gun violence. A tragic and preventable loss of life.”
“As I ride home and listen to the happy sounds of a daddy and his baby watching the stations go by, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the [Metro] team who put themselves on the line for all our safety every day, and grief for the loss of Robert Cunningham, may he rest in peace,” Metro board member Tracy Hadden Loh tweeted.
Hearing from @wmata officials that one of their employees, mechanic Robert Cunningham, was killed while trying to stop a gunman who had already shot two people and was threatening another.— Senator Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) February 1, 2023
Robert Cunningham is a hero. My deepest condolences go out to his loved ones.
Bouquets of carnations, orchids and succulents were piled inside the entrance to the Metro station on Thursday, forming a makeshift memorial that included cards offering condolences to Cunningham’s colleagues and loved ones. Passengers paused to view the arrangement in silence before running to catch departing trains or buses.
“It breaks my heart to see this kind of violence going on, that people have to deal with this day-to-day,” said commuter Phyllis Parker. “I’ll try to pray for these attendants, for the train drivers and for everybody on the train.”
In the Silver Spring neighborhood where Cunningham lived for decades, people from across the street and down the block kept coming to Whaley’s door asking what they could do to help the Cunningham family.
Whaley had lived next to Cunningham for more than three decades, while her husband had known him for longer, helping him with advanced math when Cunningham was learning some of the fundamentals that would help him to become a skilled low-voltage mechanic at Metro for more than 20 years.
“Bob,” as he was known, would chat with Whaley about his favorite subject: His four children, sometimes seeking advice during their teenage years. He would stop by the Whaleys’ home when he saw a dome light left on in a car. Cunningham occasionally asked Whaley if he could walk Sammy, the Whaleys’ Akita-Chow mix, until he finally got a puppy of his own.
The neighbors kept their chats casual, but Whaley said Cunningham occasionally would discuss an injustice or problem he saw in the neighborhood, indicating he would take the initiative to fix the situation. He had a moral sense of right and wrong, Whaley said.
“He would do something about it, not in a mean way, but that he would say something about it and see if he can work out some kind of agreement so we could all get along,” she said.
At Metro, counselors were on-site Thursday to help colleagues cope with Cunningham’s death. The transit agency also launched a fundraiser after receiving requests from the public to help his family. In its first seven hours, it had collected nearly $50,000.
Greg Bowen, a high-voltage electrician and mechanic who was supposed to join Cunningham on Wednesday to inspect lighting and search for infrastructure repairs in Metro tunnels, described Cunningham as a quiet and religious man liked by everyone. He laughed at jokes but was quiet and sincere, never participating in the playful name-calling or banter that mechanics might throw around.
In recent months, Bowen, who had known Cunningham for 17 years, said he had been preparing for retirement, focused on making sure his wife and four children would be financially secure.
In a recent conversation, Cunningham’s co-workers discussed what they would do if someone accidentally fell onto the Metro system’s electrified third rail. Some said they would look for the special emergency boxes that line the track and can shut down power.
Cunningham said if one wasn’t in view, he would pull the person off the rail, knowing it would put his life in danger, Bowen said.
Katie Shepherd and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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