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Computer failure may have caused D.C. train crash

WASHINGTON - A transit operator on the job about threemonths in the nation's capital had just started her shift and tookover an older train that federal safety officials had warned yearsearlier should be replaced.

About eight miles down the red line track, another train wasstopped. In the blink of an eye, the trailing train, underautomated control, slammed into the stopped one and jackknifedviolently into the air, falling atop the first. Nine people werekilled and more than 70 injured in Monday's crash.

"It was only a split second," said 20-year-old Jamie Jiao ofVienna, Va., who was aboard the moving train, sitting just a fewfeet from where the car was smashed. "We were probably travelingpretty fast. No one had time to react."

Now investigators are trying to find out why the train didn'tstop, even though officials say the emergency brake control waspushed down and there was evidence that the operator tried to slowher car before impact.

"That train was never supposed to get closer than 1,200 feet,period," said Jackie Jeter, president of a union that representsMetro workers.

Emergency brake controls are referred to as "mushrooms" ontransit trains, protruding from the operator's console so they canbe slammed down with a swift slap of the palm.

Debbie Hersman, an investigator with the National TransportationSafety Board, said Tuesday it wasn't clear when the button waspressed or how it got that way. Much on the train, including toggleswitches and other controls, could have been disturbed in thecrash, she said.

Safety officials also are investigating a passenger's statementthat the train had stopped briefly then started again before theaccident.

The horror of the worst disaster in the system's 33-year historyshocked the Washington region, where the Metro system is anintegral part of the economic and social fabric.

As is typical of rush-hour trains, the moving train had beenoperating under automatic control, but the computerized systemfailed to avert the approaching crash. The transit agency tried toassure riders their trains were still safe and all were running onmanual control Tuesday as a precaution against computermalfunction.

When the train is in automatic mode, the operator's main job isto open and close the doors and respond to emergencies.

The crash occurred near the D.C. and Maryland border, in an areawhere higher train speeds are common because there is a longerdistance between stops. Trains can go 55 to 59 mph, though it wasnot clear how fast the train that crashed was traveling.

The cars in the moving train were some of the oldest in thetransit network, dating to the founding of the system in 1976.

Federal officials had sought to phase out the aging fleetbecause of safety concerns, but the transit system kept the oldtrains running, saying it lacked money for new cars.

Hersman told The Associated Press that the NTSB had warned in2006 that the old fleet should be replaced or retrofitted to makeit better able to survive a crash.

Neither was done, she said, which the NTSB considered"unacceptable."

Metro General Manager John Catoe said the agency expected toreceive proposals "over the next month or so" to replace the oldcars, but new trains were still years away from being installed. Heinsisted the existing cars were safe.

This isn't the first time that Metro's automated system has beenquestioned. There was a close call in 2005 because of signaltroubles in a tunnel under the Potomac River. Signal relays thatcontrol trains were replaced after a serious safety warning in May2000 by the Federal Railroad Administration. The only other fatalcrash was in 1982, when three people died in a derailment.

The operator of the train that barreled into the stopped carswas Jeanice McMillan, 42, of Springfield, Va., who was hired inJanuary 2007 as a bus driver. She was tapped to become a trainoperator in January 2009, the NTSB said. McMillan completedtraining and began working as an operator in March.

Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said there has been noindication that McMillan was sending text messages or talking on acell phone, which contributed to passenger train crashes in othercities, though federal investigators were checking her phonerecords.

McMillan occasionally slept at the office if she couldn't catcha ride home after her shift ended, said Iyesha Thomas, a Metroemployee who worked with her, and she was finishing up her workweek. While investigators have not suggested fatigue played a partin the crash, they were reviewing McMillan's schedule in the daysleading up to the crash.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that this driver has doneanything to cause this accident," Catoe said Tuesday.

He described the aftermath as "one that no one should have tosee. It was unbelievable destruction."

Later Tuesday, his voice choked with emotion as he addressedhundreds of employees at a prayer vigil, said his agency would findout what happened and solve whatever problem caused it.

"We cannot afford to lose any more of our own, or any more ofour customers."


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