Investigators say brake was pushed; body count hits 9

Metro train operator Jeanice McMillan appeared to have pushed an emergency brake just moments before her train slammed into a stopped train, killing her and eight passengers in Metro’s deadliest crash.

Investigators found the mushroom-shaped brake button had been pushed in, and the brakes themselves showed signs of “potential braking,” according to National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman.

But the train that caused the accident failed to stop in time despite a series of safeguards intended to prevent train collisions.

Hersman said investigators were “very interested” to look into whether Metro may have been overdue on inspecting and maintaining the brakes on the six-car train. They are also looking into repairs made recently to that stretch of track.

The speed limit in that stretch of slightly curving track in Northeast D.C. is 59 mph, Hersman said. Metro General Manager John Catoe said the mangled wreckage showed the train was traveling at “a significant speed” on impact.

The front rail car hit with such force that it rose into the air and landed on top of the rear car of the stopped train. The impact crumpled it to nearly a third of its size.

“The scene is one that no one should have to see,” Catoe said after visiting the crash site Tuesday. “It is far worse than you can imagine.”

Federal investigators began dismantling the wreckage to find out what went wrong Monday afternoon, when eight riders were killed and 70 were injured in what witnesses described as a crash that knocked them from their seats, then left them struggling to find help in a bloody, confusing and smoke-filled scene.

Investigators are pulling cell phone records to see whether McMillan, the 42-year-old train operator who began running trains in March, was using a cell phone. Hersman said the NTSB was also requesting toxicology reports, and will review her  schedule in the 72 hours before the crash.

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that the driver has done anything to cause this accident,” Catoe told reporters.
Investigators are also looking into the aging rail cars — and whether newer cars might have saved lives.

The NTSB had recommended three years ago that Metro replace its oldest rail cars, the 1000 series from the 1970s that made up the train that crashed. Such trains have been deemed not “crashworthy.” Metro has about 290 rail cars of that make, about a quarter of its fleet.

Catoe and other Metro officials said they haven’t had the $900 million needed to pay for them all.

But experts said aging rail cars alone do not solve the mystery of the deadly crash.

“It should not have happened,” said Jackie Jeter, a former train operator and president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Metrorail operators. “The safeguards in place should have prevented it.”

The train appears to have been running in automatic mode, standard during rush hour.

Greg Hull, director of security and operations support for the American Public Transportation Association, said the trains have a fail-safe mode built in that would bring the train to a stop should the automated system fail. “Any instances of failure of these systems are extremely rare,” he told The Examiner.

Metro officials said all trains would be operating manually until further notice. “That’s an extra safety action until we determine the cause of this accident,” Catoe said.

Staff Writers William Flook, Scott McCabe and Bill Myers contributed to this report.