WASHINGTON -- A D.C. Metro train appears to have been in automatic mode with the brake button depressed when it collided with another train, killing nine Monday evening, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
It's not clear if the emergency brake actually was engaged when the crash occurred, NTSB member Debbie Hersman said, but the button that turns it on was found pushed down in the operator's compartment.
Hersman told a news conference that investigators also determined that the striking train was under automatic, rather than manual, control.
Metro has a computerized system on most trains during rush hour that is supposed to control braking, speeds and prevent collisions. The system, however, has failed before. In June 2005, in a tunnel under the Potomac River, a train operator noticed he was getting too close to the train ahead of him even though the system indicated the track was clear. He hit the emergency brake in time, as did the operator of another train behind him. Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith didn't know the outcome of the investigation into that incident, which she called "highly unusual."
Investigators are seeking possible cell phone and text-messaging records from the train operator to determine whether she was distracted prior to the crash, Hersman said. That request is standard procedure. The safety board has emphasized in the past that train operators should not have their attention diverted while operating trains.
Federal safety officials are investigating a passenger's statement that the striking train stopped briefly then started again before the crash. Media reports quoted the passenger as saying he heard an announcement before the crash that the train that struck the other was stopping because another train was ahead. The train then started moving and within seconds struck the other which was stopped on the track ahead.
Large machinery was used to rip apart the compressed metal of what used to be a train so rescue crews could search for bodies in the wreckage left by the deadliest crash in Metro's history.
The total numbers -- nine dead so far, including the operator of the train that plowed into the back of another that was sitting on the same Red Line track, at least 76 transported to hospitals with varying degrees of injuries -- are a staggering blow to the nation's capital. Metro officials said seven of the nine who died were women. Four of the dead were pulled from the wreckage Monday night. Five more were removed Tuesday morning, according to Metro.
The NTSB said it will be difficult to piece together exactly how the crash occurred. The reason: the train that crashed into the back of the other was an older model train -- a 1000 series. The train that was struck was comprised of 3000 and 5000 series rail cars that include nine data recorders. The 1000 series, however, does not.
The operator of the striking train, Jeanice McMillan of Springfield, Va., died in the crash, making witness accounts, cell phone records and physical evidence the main clues for investigators to piece together what exactly happened.
Metro spokesman Steve Taubenkibel said McMillan had been a Metro employee since January 2007. For more on McMillan and the other victims, click here.
The 1000-series train was part of an aging fleet that federal regulators had recommended three years ago be phased out or retrofitted, a safety investigator said Tuesday.
The Metrorail transit system "was not able to do what we asked them to do," Hersman said.
D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, also a member of the Metro board, said they are aggressively trying to replace those trains. He said Metro had taken action before the crash to achieve that objective.
It costs about $3 million to replace a Metro car, and there are about 300 older cars to replace. Metro's board hopes Congress and the transportation board will help with funding. Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, of Maryland, and Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner sent a letter to the the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development requesting $150 million in federal funding for upgrades and improvements to the transit system. Each had requested the funds separately in the fiscal year 2010 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.
Any comments about the cause of the accident would be premature and irresponsible, according Jackie Jeter, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, the transit workers' union in the nation's capital.
Survivors Recall First Moments After Crash
The shock of seeing one train sitting on top of another still hasn't sunk in for many. Those who survived will have a tough time dealing with not only the injuries they received but also with the sounds and images they experienced Monday afternoon outside the Fort Totten station.
"If you were someone on that train, that was just an unbelievable nightmare," D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said. "It must have just been the worst thing in the world."
Passengers described the horror they went through as they tried to assess what happened when one Metro train plowed into the back of another.
"There was an abrupt bang that threw us back and then forward," said David Holland, who was injured in the crash. "And then it was all this dust. I've never seen that much dust in my life. People were discombobulated and crying."
Holland said he and several others were the first to exit their railcar. Then they started to help others exit the wreckage.
"When we helped them get off, that's when we saw a lot of people -- people from the other trains. They came and helped," Holland said. "Nobody wanted to go toward the front of the train. Nobody wanted to go up there because ... the people. You saw them in the train and outside ... crying. It was horrible."
Jervis Bryant told the Washington Post that people "were beating on the windows, trying to get out."
"I saw some of them on their cellphones," Bryant said. "You can tell they didn't know what was going on, but they knew something had happened. They were just scared."
"The glass in the windows was shattered," he told the Examiner. "There was blood all over the seats. ... Someone said there were people on top of the back train car injured. I saw blood coming down from the top of the car."
Martin Griffith, a civilian Pentagon employee, told the Washington Post he was inside the train that was struck.
"I looked out the window. I looked up. I could see the wreckage hanging over the door. There was a woman there, too, trying to hang on."
He told the Post he hit the emergency release and opened the door out onto the track.
"That's when I realized people had been ejected out. They were lying on the ground next to the car," he said.
Passenger Maya Maroto, 31, was riding on McMillan's train.
"We were going full speed -- I didn't hear any braking. Everything was just going normally. Then there was a very loud impact. We all fell out of our seats. Then the train filled up with smoke. I was coughing," Maroto said.
Maroto, of Burtonsville, Md., said there was confusion after the impact because no announcements were immediately made. She said some passengers wanted to climb out, but others were afraid of being electrocuted by a rail.
Tijuana Cox, 21, was in the train that was hit. She had her sprained arm in a sling Tuesday.
"Everybody just went forward and came back," with people's knees hitting the seats in front of them, said Cox, of Lanham, Md.
Those who live in the Fort Totten neighborhood could see the drama unfold from their homes and area streets.
"Mind-blowing," one Fort Totten neighbor said. "Words couldn't describe what I saw. I just kept praying, just hoping God was with all the passengers."