Tuesday, June 23, 2009

WMATA wreck kills nine; NTSB investigation under way

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Nine people have been confirmed dead and more than 70 have been injured as the result of a rear-end collision on the Washington Metro Red Line. The accident—the deadliest one in Metro’s 33-year history—occurred just after 5:00 p.m. Monday (June 22) near the Fort Totten station. Metro officials confirmed one of the dead as train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42. Six injuries were described as life-threatening. The majority of casualties occured on the following train, the lead car of which telescoped into the trailing car of the first train. The car that telescoped is a 1000-Series car built in the early 1970s.

wmata-wreck.jpgBoth trains involved in the collision were traveling inbound, toward Union Station, when one train stopped short of the Fort Totten station and was rear-ended by the other. The National Transportation Safety Board is on the scene with nine employees leading an investigation into what caused the collision.

It will take several months for NTSB to determine the exact cause of the accident.  Investigators are trying to find out why thetrain didn't stop, even though officials say the emergency brakecontrol was pushed down and there was evidence that the operator triedto slow the train before impact. The emergency brake controls, called"mushrooms,"  protrude from the operator's consoleso they can be slammed down with a swift slap of the palm. NTSB's Debbie Hersman said it wasn't clear when thebutton was pressed or how it got that way. Much of the control equipment the train, includingtoggle switches and other controls, could have been disturbed in thecrash, she said.

Investigators are focusing on two possible causes: A catastrophicfailure of the automated train control system, and operator error. The train was operating in automatic mode.

NTSB blamed the heavy casualty count on the 1000-Series car, which does not meet recent, more-stringent crashworthiness standards for passenger rail vehicles. NTSB in 2006 had recommended that WMATA retire and replace its 1000-Series cars.

Speaking before an emergency WMATA board meeting on June 23, General Manager John Catoe said that his words "cannot change what happened," but that his actions can help prevent a reoccurence. "I still do believe that Metro is a safe system," he added