It’s been a year since the tragic accident on Metro’s Red Line claimed the lives of nine people and injured several others.
But for the surviving families, whose grief was only deepened by this week’s huge memorial service at the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington, it’s incumbent upon Metro to not only make amends for their pain—they also want the system make safety its main priority.
“This was a tragedy that could have been avoided,” said Sam Johnson, one of several persons that spoke on behalf of the deceased victims’ families. “But under the new leadership we’re confident that Metro will get the safety of its system right.”
The horrific derailment, in which two trains crashed head on, has been documented as the worst in Metro’s 34-year history.
Since then, the system – which also operates a fleet of commuter buses – has been under intense scrutiny over its safety operations. Panels have been convened locally and on the national level to try to determine what controls were at fault surrounding the rush-hour derailment and what measures might be established to prevent a repeat occurrence.
According to Metro board member Peter Benjamin, June 22, 2009, was the day the system lost its innocence. Prior to that, the last train fatality had occurred some 20 years before, he said.
“But now we are dedicated to preventing future accidents,” said Benjamin.
“Safety must become the way we live every day,” he added, alluding to a slew of new safety initiatives and mandates that have been set in motion. Among those measures were beefed-up efforts to purchase new equipment, rail cars and buses and provide employees with adequate resources and training.
Meanwhile, Metro has had a change in leadership following General Manager John Catoe’s recent departure. Officials say while the system is doing better under newcomer Richard Sarles, it remains in its planning stages with a lot more improvements in the works.
The system is currently waiting to hear back on a report from the National Transportation Safety Board detailing immediate changes to be instituted and other recommendations.
Even President Barack Obama’s administration has closed in on the matter, crafting legislation regarding rail safety standards.
According to White House transit administrator, Peter Rogoff, that particular bill was the first of such “transmitted to Congress which was solely about public transportation.”
District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said although this has been a hard reality for Metro, it could not begin to compare to the 12 months endured by the victims’ families. Norton went on to say, however, that despite its worsening record, Metro remains a vital part of the region.
“There’s no bond that unites us more than the Metro, which we all have in common ,” Norton said. “We cannot operate this government without Metro.”
At the same time, she added, “Metro must be reborn.”
During the lengthy memorial that was attended by more than 1,000 people, train driver Jeanice McMillan – also killed in the collision – was repeatedly lauded as a hero. Speaker after speaker, including Mayor Adrian Fenty, hailed her for doing all she could to save the lives of countless other passengers that day. She lost her own life trying to save the lives of others, they said.
“I climbed the steep hill to where the accident and realized what Ms. McMillan had faced in her last moments, ” said Benjamin, the Metro board member.
“By the time she the situation, it was probably too late. She did everything right, but it wasn’t enough,” Benjamin continued. “She was truly a hero.”
One of the most compelling speakers was McMillan’s teenage son Jordan, who spoke eloquently about missing his mother, finishing school and carrying on her legacy.
The teenager also promised he would see to it that his family – especially his grandparents – would be taken care of for the rest of their lives.
Other speakers called on Metro and the community to help the victims’ loved ones financially and emotionally. For instance, the family of LaVonda “Nicky” King, who left behind two young children, has said Metro failed to contact them.
“There’s been some help but the family still needs more,” said John Brown, who spoke about the family’s ongoing struggle. “Dig a little deeper than the process and the political situation to let them know you empathize and sympathize with their .”