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Investigators Search for Clues in Fatal D.C. Train Crash

June 23, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Federal investigators on Tuesday worked to discover what caused two trains to collide yesterday in the nation's capital, killing nine people and injuring more than 75 others. Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Search-and-rescue operations ceased today at the site of last night’s deadly crash. Washington D.C.’s mayor, Adrian Fenty.

ADRIAN FENTY, Mayor, Washington, D.C.: The Fire Department has finished their work as the lead agency. Since the last time we briefed you, they pulled those last remaining bodies off of the train. They have cleared all the wreckage, and they are now sure that there are no more bodies and no more remains on the train.

Searching for a cause

KWAME HOLMAN: With the search for victims ended, the search for a cause continues. Investigators said today the button that operates the emergency brake on the moving train had been pressed, but it was not clear the brakes engaged.

They also said they don't yet know why several other crash avoidance mechanisms apparently failed.

Washington's Metro system uses a series of computerized signals designed to avoid crashes by slowing or stopping trains that are in dangerous proximity. The train that was struck while stationary was a newer model equipped with a data recording system which should provide key information.

But Debbie Hersman, incoming chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, says the fact that the striking train was older and had no recorders may present problems for investigators.

DEBBIE HERSMAN, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, if there had been a recorder on the striking train, we might have had some indication of whether or not there was braking. The speed of the train, you know, the throttle position, those kinds of tools, you know, are helpful for our investigative team.

We may still be able to extrapolate some of that information by looking at the crush zone, looking at the tracks, at the wheels to see if there was a brake application, looking at the track speed, and, you know, the closing rate.

And so, you know, we might still be able to estimate that speed, but certainly the recorders make our job a lot easier, and they also give us a redundancy so that we have two potential information sources.

Some safety mechanisms failed

KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, the head of the Metro system's employee union, Jackie Jeter, said the safety features of both trains should have prevented the crash.

JACKIE JETER, Amalgamated Transit Union: This was not supposed to happen. There are safety mechanisms that are in place on the trains to prevent this type of accident. And for me, as president of the union and as a train operator, I have to wonder, why did no safety mechanisms kick in and prevent it? As an operator, as a train operator, a former train operator, the train should have stopped no matter what.

KWAME HOLMAN: Investigators also will examine the actions of the woman at the controls of the striking train, Jeanice McMillan, who died in yesterday's crash. Her mentor, Earl Beatty, recalled her as a conscientious worker and proud single mother.

EARL BEATTY: Very hard-working, very independent, a single parent. And I think one of her proudest accomplishments was the fact that she was able to send her only son to college last September.

Struggle to secure funding

KWAME HOLMAN: The older model train McMillan was operating when it struck the stationary train was due to be replaced. In fact, three years ago, the NTSB recommended that Metro take all such Series 1000 trains off the tracks or retrofit them to make them safer in impacts such as yesterday's. Metro said it was planning to do so once funding was secured.

D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham serves as chairman of the Metro system's board.

JIM GRAHAM, Chair, Metro Board of Directors: We have been identifying this particular need, you know, year after year after year. And, of course, our whole, you know, dedicated funding effort to, you know, come up with $300 million annually for our capital needs, if we can get this funded today, if we can get this type of money into place from the jurisdictions and from the federal government, you know, we're going to be able to very significantly address this issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, the Washington Post reported the older striking train also may have been overdue for maintenance on its brakes. Metro officials strongly denied the report.

NTSB's Hersman says those and other issues are part of the investigation.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: That's a question that the safety board is going to be looking very closely at. We have not determined, you know, the cause of this accident, but we do know that metro operates their trains in rush hour in the automatic mode and that the purpose of operating in automatic is really to provide some separation between those trains to make sure there's safe separation and also speed, control, and some other things.

And so, if there was any failure there, we want to understand what it was. But we're really kind of not to that point yet, and we're still gathering facts.

Deadliest crash in Metro history

KWAME HOLMAN: The crash occurred during Metro's busy evening rush hour here near the D.C.-Maryland border. More than 70 people were taken to area hospitals, several in critical condition. Passengers said the violent impact of the crash hurled people inside both trains.

PASSENGER: And the seat flew up.

PASSENGER: The seats came out the wall and pushed us. We flew. Everybody on our track flew.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among those who died in yesterday's collision was retired General David Wherley, who headed Washington's National Guard contingent.

ADRIAN FENTY: He was as fine a public servant and as dedicated to the United States of America and everything that is great about this country as anyone I have ever met.

KWAME HOLMAN: The crash was the deadliest in the Metro system's 33-year history. A derailment in 1982 killed three passengers, and in 2006 three Metro workers were struck and killed by trains in two separate incidents.

JIM LEHRER: Just a short time ago, federal officials said the operator of the moving train had only started driving trains in March.