- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — One year after a Metro train operator and eight passengers were killed in a crash in Washington, relatives and friends shared their memories of the victims at a ceremony Tuesday to dedicate a memorial plaque near the site of the crash.

The victims’ survivors talked of people who had inspired students, cared for senior citizens and worked hard to provide for their children. There was praise for train operator Jeanice McMillan, credited with saving many lives in her last moments by slamming the train’s brakes before her train hit another waiting to pull into the Fort Totten station.

“She stayed at the controls trying to save lives to the end,” Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff told the crowd gathered under a tent on a grassy space by the same station on Tuesday. If she hadn’t hit the brakes, Rogoff said one tent wouldn’t be enough to host the ceremony, because many more people would have lost their lives.

McMillan’s 20-year-old son, Jordan, said this first year without his mother has been his hardest, but he was glad to see people assembled to mark the first anniversary.

“It’s nice to see everyone come together for something so tragic,” Mr. McMillan said. “Because this was not supposed to happen.”

Since the crash, Metro officials say they’ve taken steps to improve safety, though some officials say the agency has a long way to go.

Metro has a new chief safety officer and is expanding the agency’s safety department staff. Metro has also established an anonymous safety hot line to encourage people to report safety problems and is working on a whistleblower protection policy so workers can feel more secure reporting safety issues.

“The greatest tribute Metro can offer is to rededicate itself to safety,” interim General Manager Richard Sarles said, pledging that Metro will do everything it can to prevent a similar tragedy.

Metro has made safety a priority and improved its internal communication, said Matt Bassett, chairman of the Tri-state Oversight Committee, which oversees Metro rail safety and security.

“I’m confident in the progress they have been demonstrating … that they are going in the right direction, Mr. Bassett said. “If you rush through you may as well not do it.”

However, Mr. Bassett noted that the agency still has a lot of work to do, improving its internal safety audit practices and accident investigation process and reducing down its backlog of corrective actions for safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board held a three-day hearing on the crash earlier this year, but had not yet determined a probable cause. The board is expected to review the final report of its investigation at a meeting next month.

Metro’s leadership has undergone changes in the last year, including the exit of its general manager John Catoe and the appointment of Sarles as an interim head. The board has not rushed its selection of a permanent general manager, and that’s a good thing, said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“I can understand why,” she said. “Somebody is going to have to come into a very troubled system where they are going to be watched very closely.”

Since the crash, trains have been operated manually, instead of using the system’s automatic mode, which has made travel on the system slower for riders, but it is considered safer, Ms. Norton said.

Kathi Brown, 39, of Vienna, Va., was riding the red line Tuesday morning and said she still takes Metro because she needs to get downtown and it’s easier than the alternatives. But she said she can’t tell what officials are doing to improve safety other than the manual operation of trains.

“It gives me peace of mind knowing they’re being operated manually,” Ms. Brown said. “I don’t mind a few minutes.”

Members of Congressional delegations from the region are pursuing legislation to bring in federal oversight of rail transit systems in hopes of improving safety. Currently, these systems operate without comprehensive federal safety regulation, oversight or enforcement authority and the Department of Transportation is prohibited from issuing safety regulations for them.

“Metro must be reborn,” Ms. Norton told the crowd. “We must make Metro so safe that we can once again say we are proud of the system.”




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