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Investigators probe WDC's worst subway crash

INVESTIGATORS searched the wreckage at the site of Washington's worst subway crash, hunting for recording devices and other clues to help determine why one Metrorail train plowed into the back of another and killed at least nine people.

Scores of others were injured in yesterday's crash at the height of the evening rush hour.

The District of Columbia Fire Department said rescue workers found three more bodies in the wreckage late Monday night, raising the death toll to nine.

At about 5 pm on the Metro's busiest line, one train was stopped on the tracks, waiting for another to clear the station ahead when a trailing train plowed into it from behind, Metro general manager John Catoe said.

An automated computer system used to run trains was supposed to keep them apart, but it was not clear whether the system was in use when the crash occurred, he said.

The operator of the trailing train, Jeanice McMillan, was one of six people confirmed dead earlier.

Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators would check operator procedures and track signals, interview witnesses and inspect the tracks themselves. She said officials also were searching the wreckage for devices on the trains that record operating speeds and commands.

"It is a scene of real devastation," she said of the crash, which ripped open passenger cars when the trains smashed together. More details were expected at a Tuesday morning news conference.

Jervis Bryant of Upper Marlboro in neighboring Maryland, who was in the area at the time of the crash, said people inside some of the cars banged on the windows trying to get out.

He said he ran over to help, but could not get close enough to reach the passengers. Some eventually began leaving the trains, he said.

"It's a scene I never thought I would see," said Bryant, who frequently rides the Metro. "It was more frightening to watch and not to be able to help."

More than 200 firefighters from Washington, Maryland and Virginia eventually converged on the scene. Sabrina Webber, a 45-year-old real estate agent who lives in the neighborhood, said she raced to the scene after hearing a loud boom like a "thunder crash" and then sirens. She said there was no panic among the survivors.

The Metro's busy red line runs below ground for much of its length but is at ground level at the accident site near the Maryland state line in northeast Washington.

Officials would not say how fast the train was traveling at the time of the accident. The crash occurred in an area with a sizable distance between rail stations in which trains are allowed to travel at higher speeds, Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said.

Each train had six cars and was capable of holding as many as 1,200 people. Hersman said the trains were bound for downtown. That would mean they were less likely to be filled during the afternoon rush hour.

The trains had pulled out of the Takoma Park station and were headed in the direction of the Fort Totten station.

The only other time in Metrorail's 33-year history that there were passenger fatalities was on Jan. 13, 1982, when three people died as a result of a derailment beneath downtown. That was a day of disaster in the capital: Shortly before the subway crash, an Air Florida plane slammed into the 14th Street Bridge immediately after takeoff from Washington National Airport across the Potomac River. The plane crash, during a severe snowstorm, killed 78 people.


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