- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

UPDATED:

The investigation into Monday’s fatal Metro crash that killed nine people is focusing on radarlike sensors that failed to alert a red line train that other trains were stopped on the track, John B. Catoe Jr., the agency’s general manager, said Tuesday morning.

He said the computerized sensor system is similar to an air-traffic-control system and stops trains when a problem occurs on a track, including when another train is too close. Mr. Catoe said the system also has a mechanical override that did not engage during the afternoon rush-hour crash, but he declined to speculate on why it did not engage.

He said the system worked for several trains along the line, including the one that was stopped and struck.

“Something happened to it,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”

Mr. Catoe spoke at a press conference in which federal investigators said the southbound train that rammed the stopped train, between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, was composed of older-model cars — known as 1000-series cars — that had been identified as inadequate.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said all “perishable data” has been collected in the first phase of the investigation and that the agency will now begin looking at such documents as cell-phone records, which includes accounts of text messages.

She said the agency has recently investigated two crashes in which a train operator was distracted when using a portable communication device — including a May 8 incident in Boston in which 20 trolley passengers were injured.

In Sept. 2008, the engineer of California commuter train sent a text message on his cell phone seconds before his train crashed into a freight train, killing 25 passengers.

Mrs. Hersman said the agency has yet to determine the cause of Monday’s accident, the worst in the subway system’s 33-year history, and that investigators still must examined the sensor system and the tracks.

She said the 1000-series cars do not have the crash-recording devices that were on board the newer, six-car train, which was hit at about 5 p.m. Monday on the red line. The accident also injured at least 70 people.

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She said the agency recommended in 2004 and 2006 that such cars be retrofitted or phased out, but Metro has failed to do that.

“The case was closed in an unacceptable status,” Mrs. Hersman said.

She said the agency also recommended recorders be added to the 1000-series cars.

Officials have released the names of five of the nine people who died: Train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42, of Springfield, Va.; Dennis Hawkins, 64, of Southeast; Mary Doolittle, 59, of Northwest; Lavonda N. King, 23, of Northeast; and Ana Fernandez, 40, of Hyattsville.

Chief Dennis L. Rubin of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department said a crane was brought to the crash site at about 5:30 a.m. Tuesday to begin separating the trains. The last cars of the struck train are underneath the front cars of the striking train.

He described the scene as “in layers” and “horrific.” Chief Rubin also said that two firefighters were injured in the rescue operation and that dogs were sent into surrounding woods to find crash victims.

Mrs. Hersman said the struck train was composed on newer-models cars that had nine data recorders that will help investigators learn exactly what happened.

However, having no recorders on the other train will hurt attempts to learn such key information as how fast it was going and whether the operator attempted to apply the brakes manually.

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“We do not expect to get good information off of that train,” Mrs. Hersman said.

She also said nine NTSB investigators are on the scene and will be divided into several units, including a Signal Team; a Mechanical-Records Team; a Track Team, which will look for rail cracks and broken circuits; and a Survival-Factors Team, which will gather such information as how quickly passengers were removed from the wreckage.

Investigators also will try to determine how fast the train was traveling and conduct a “sight-distance” test to attempt to learn whether the train operator could see the stopped train. The accident occurred before twilight on a clear day.

The operator, Jeanice McMillan, 42, was killed in the accident and has been the only victim identified by officials, who have scheduled a follow-up press conference for 5 p.m.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty revisited the crash scene after the press conference and said the death toll likely will increase.

“It brought home what an awful tragedy this is,” he said.

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