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NTSB: Subway cars in deadly crash should've been replaced

WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board recommended three years ago that Washington's Metro system replace the type of rail car involved in Monday's mishap that killed nine and injured 80, saying they were vulnerable to catastrophic damage in a collision.

Metro officials, however, said they couldn't afford to get rid of the cars, some of which have been in service since the subway system opened in 1976.

Bridget Serchak, an NTSB spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Metro's failure to fix or replace the cars was "unacceptable." Debbie Hersman, another spokeswoman for the NTSB, shared that assessment. Neither elaborated.

Monday's accident was the deadliest in Metro's 33-year history. At about 5 p.m., a six-car train inexplicably plowed into the back of another, peeling away the floor of the striking train and leaving it sitting on top of the stopped train. The first car of the striking train was compressed to almost a third of its size, officials said.

Following a 2004 accident in which 22 were injured, the NTSB concluded that the 1000-series cars, which was the model of the striking train in Monday's accident, should be immediately phased out or retrofitted to withstand a crash better. The 1000-series cars are more than 30 years old. The train car that was struck was a newer model.

The 1000-series cars "are vulnerable to catastrophic telescoping damage and complete loss of occupant survival space in a longitudinal end-structure collision . . . ," the NTSB said in 2006. "The failure to have minimum crashworthiness standards for preventing telescoping of rail transit cars in collisions places an unnecessary risk on passengers and crew."

The San Francisco mass transit system, BART, currently uses rail cars manufactured in the early 1970s by Rohr Industries, the maker of cars in Monday's Metro crash. BART has announced plans to replace the cars.

Jim Graham, a District of Columbia city councilman and the chairman of the Metro board, said it would cost about $1 billion to replace the 1000-series cars. While Metro couldn't afford to replace its oldest rail cars, the agency has been keeping them in good condition, he said. Now, Metro is "considering other strategies" for use of the cars.

"We have been relentless in our pursuit of funding to replace these rail cars," Graham said, calling the financial need "dire." The board unanimously voted Tuesday to give $250,000 to survivors and the victims' families, to cover medical and funeral expenses. They will also meet again on Thursday to discuss further action.

"I can't stress it enough. It should not happened, under any circumstances," said Jackie Lynn Jeter, the president of Metro's union. "I thought I would never again see another accident of this caliber," she added, referring to another crash in 1996, which killed a train's operator.

Jeter said the trains run in automatic mode during rush hour, and have sensors that should keep them from getting closer than 1,200 feet from each other.

Investigators, who're still in the early stages of their inquiry, said Tuesday that the train operator, who died in the crash, likely applied the emergency brake, but cautioned against drawing early conclusions on what caused the crash. Also under scrutiny are the train's signaling system and potential human error.

Passengers on the striking train said it stopped momentarily before the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington. Then, the train began to move forward at a moderate speed on a curved track before plowing into a stopped train. Several passengers said they didn't feel any braking.

Officials said there was evidence an emergency brake was used: the button was pushed down, and the brake rotors showed signs of a brake application. A toxicology report will be performed on the operator, and her text messages and cell phone calls will be reviewed, as is normal procedure, said NTSB's Hersman.

The union is providing grief counseling for employees, Jeter said at Metro headquarters, where Metro signs were draped with flowers and black ribbons.

The 1000-series rail cars were involved in two other Metro accidents, the 2004 incident in which an empty train rolled back into another, injuring more than 20 people; and another in 1982, when a train derailed, killing three people. That crash was previously the most deadly Metro accident and the only one involving passenger fatalities.

Authorities said the nine victims included Jeanice McMillan, 42, the driver of the striking train; retired Air Force Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. and his wife, Ann Wherley, both 62; Ana Fernandez, 40, of Hyattsville, Md.; Mary Doolittle, 59, Dennis Hawkins, 64, and LaVonda King, 23, all of Washington. Cameron Williams and Veronica Dubois are likely but unconfirmed victims.

McMillan, the train operator, was hired in January 2007 as a bus driver, and began working for the rail system in January. She completed her rail training in March.

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