Metro Red Line Crash Anniversary: Honoring Jeanice McMillan

22 06 2010

After the collision of two trains on the red line of the Washington DC Metro system, the top part of one train car rests atop the lead cars of the train that crashed into it from behind.  Workers from the Loudon County Fire Department are climbing ladders and walking on top of the train.

The Washington Post has an article up about a memorial for the nine people who died in Metro’s Red Line collision, one year ago today.

The National Transportation Safety Board held hearings in February, but they have not yet released their report on the accident.  Tons of information about the investigation is available on the NTSB website.

I want to talk a little bit today about the train operator who died in the crash.  Her name was Jeanice McMillan, and she loved her job.  I understand where she was coming from on that.  One of the reasons I fell in love with the city of Washington, DC, visiting as a tourist in high school, was the grandeur of the accomplishment that is the DC Metro: all of it, from the beauty of the station designs to the fact that every single day it moves as many as 800,000 people.  The million plus who descended on DC for Obama’s inauguration? Metro got ’em in and out.  Historian Zachary Schrag wrote a book about the construction of Metro called The Great Society Subway.  Metro, he argues, is not only a product of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society but an embodiment of its highest ideals: a public work, grand and ambitious in scope, not just functional, but memorably beautiful.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, accusations flew, especially in comments on the Washington Post and other news sites, on blogs, on facebook.  Before we even knew what had happened, before we even knew how many people had died, before we even knew her name, it was suggested that the train operator was at fault.  I’m not going to repeat the slurs that were thrown around so carelessly, with no evidence at all.

Because – for those not familiar with the details of the accident – it turns out that the train was being operated in automatic mode, by computer, and not under the direct control of the operator at all.  Track equipment that should have detected the stopped train ahead of hers did not function correctly, and so the train that Jeanice McMillan had charge of slammed into it, even though she had pressed the emergency brake.  In addition, the front cars of the trailing train were among the oldest in the Metro fleet.  It was known that they would suffer more catastrophic damage than newer cars in a collision, and the National Transportation Safety Board had recommended they be retrofitted or replaced for better crash protection, but Metro simply did not have the billions of dollars to do this.

Let’s not forget that in that moment when her train rounded the curve and she saw the stopped train in front of her, Jeanice McMillan had a choice. She could stay in the cab and do everything in her power to stop the train.  Or, she could run for the rear of the train, trying to save her own life.  She stayed in the cab.

Now.  Do you have that kind of nerve? Do you?

Even now, even one year later, I am every bit as angry as I was then when I think about the kinds of things that were said about Jeanice McMillan and other Metro workers.  Once again, I am not going to repeat them here.  I am not going to link to the popular blog about problems with Metro either, because while the commenters and writers there have done well to point out the criminal irresponsibility of governments and policy-makers who let Metro languish without adequate funding for so long, they have also written incredibly hateful things about Metro’s workers.

So I am not going to link, and I am not going to quote.  But I am simply going to point out a theme, and you, dear readers, can verify the truth of what I say if you visit that blog yourself, or if you read the comments on articles and blog posts about Metro at the Washington Post and other news sites.  You will find that when you read criticism of Metro at any of those sites, mixed in with criticisms of safety or reliability or timeliness of train and bus service, you encounter a constant refrain of accusations that Metro workers were insufficiently deferential to riders.  That a bus driver was rude.  That a station manager just sat in his kiosk not doing anything.  That a train operator sounded angry or frustrated with passengers when making intercom announcements.  That a Metro worker didn’t have an immediate answer to a passenger’s questions about what might be happening in a different station miles away.  That nobody apologized for train or bus service delays.  And on and on and on.

Of course, many of Metro’s workers are black.

Based on personal conversations with many many white people who complain about “rude” or “lazy” or “incompetent” Metro employees, I have not a shred of doubt that what is at the root of those complaints is unexamined racism.

And there is, quite simply, no other adequate explanation for the public vitriol and unfounded accusations made against Jeanice McMillan in the aftermath of last year’s accident.  People didn’t even know who she was, but they were so sure the accident was her fault.

Jeanice McMillan did not make decisions about how – or whether – to fund Metro adequately.  She did not make decisions about whether to retire or retrofit old train cars.  She did not make decisions about which train cars to use.

She did not make the decision to drive her train into the back of another one.  The faulty computer system did that.

But she did decide to stay in the cab, and make every effort to stop the train.

We can talk some more about DC’s racism problem later, but for now, I say this: Jeanice McMillan deserved better than what she got.  So let us remember her today.

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