Close call with D.C. train crash

Posted July 02, 2009, at 8:15 p.m.

As it turns out — despite what the dietitians say — pizza is actually good for you. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that a slice of pizza saved my life last Monday. If I hadn’t left home early and taken a Green Line train to Columbia Heights for a slice of my cousin’s specialty pizza, I would have been riding a Red Line train right around the same time that two Metro train cars crashed in Washington D.C., killing nine people and injuring at least 75 others.

And I thought that all I was getting was a really great mushroom and sausage combo.

The crash happened last Monday during rush hour when a Red Line train, bound for downtown Washington D.C., struck a stopped train in front of it. On impact, the train jackknifed violently into the air and fell partially on top of the stopped train.

“The car that I was in ended up half way on top of the train it had rammed,” wrote one of the crash survivors later in a detailed account of the accident. “Just by looking at the damage at the scene and the photographs afterwards, around 75 percent of the car was destroyed. I honestly don’t know how I walked away from this.”

Survivors struggled to free each other from the debris and help the injured, creating makeshift bandages out of their own clothing and smashing out the windows to better ventilate the smoke-filled car. It took two days to clear all of the wreckage away.

News of the accident spread almost instantly across the nation after passers-by ran to the scene of a crash that “sounded like a thunderclap,” called 911, and broadcast stories immediately on the Internet. By the time I walked out of my class at 8 o’clock that Monday evening, not three hours after the accident, I already had several voicemails from concerned friends and family wondering if I was OK.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just need to figure out if I can get home.”

Despite the buzz on the street, when I ducked back into the Dupont Circle Metro station, no official news of the crash scene — or even of the crash — was forthcoming. The Metro employees, no doubt, were trying to keep passengers calm, although it was impossible to keep us from hearing the news. Nearly everyone around me who commuted regularly on that train line was fielding similar concerned phone calls from their loved ones. “There will be a Red Line delay,” was all we were told, “due to a ‘police situation.’”

“How long will we have to wait?” asked one passenger.

“Have you got a good book?” responded the metro employee.

A shuttle system was slowly set up to bring people around the accident. Rumors and speculation — two fatalities? Ten? — ran wild as we waited. Almost no one complained about the inconvenience. All were unbelieving and grateful not to have been on board.

The next morning, though, the full reality of the accident began to sink in. The wreckage would not be entirely cleared away until Wednesday; I, like hundreds of other people, found myself painstakingly routed around the shutdown section of the train line. Free papers handed out throughout the city were splashed with pictures of the wreckage, and my fellow passengers and I read various speculations regarding why the train had crashed, following the progress of the investigation even as memorial services for the victims were announced.

We probably won’t fully understand what happened for weeks. But for now, though the trains are no less packed, people are nervous. When our train finally pulled into the station, everyone rushed toward it, trying to get a spot in one of the center cars rather than the first or last ones — those damaged the worst in Monday’s crash.

As the biographies of the train accident’s fatalities were published, I was struck by their diversity. They ranged from a recently retired general and his wife, Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. and Ann Wherley, to Ana Fernandez, the mother of six who was on her way to her second job, struggling to make ends meet for her family. Public transit does not affect one neighborhood, or one section of society; people from all walks of life were affected by Monday’s accident.

I am one of the hundreds of people with a “close call” story from Monday. If I hadn’t worked overtime, if I hadn’t been late, if I had had that meeting on Tuesday instead of Monday. The examples pile on, one after another, shared in whispers or repeated loudly as people cope with the tragedy. When it comes down to it, this was the point for many D.C. residents and commuters: any one of us could have been on that train.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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