Dozing Through Disaster

What I can tell you (and what I can’t) about the D.C. Metro crash.

A middle-aged man sleeps on his couch. Mere blocks away, two trains collide during rush hour. Twenty-five minutes later, the man is awakened not by the sound of sirens (common in this urban neighborhood) but by a phone ringing. It is his sister, calling from 3,000 miles away. Her stepdaughter, 225 miles north of where the incident took place, has just texted her about the fatal crash.

Time to update W.H. Auden’s Musée Des Beaux Arts? The middle-aged man dozing on his couch (yes, that’s me, recovering from a minor medical procedure) fits with “someone … eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” as less than a mile away at least four people die in a D.C. Metrorail collision. The old masters still have that right. But what they, and Auden, couldn’t have anticipated was that at least some of the people turned away “quite leisurely from the disaster” would be Twittering Icarus’ fall.

The collision occurred between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations. I walked to the Takoma station, three blocks from my house. The gates were locked—an unusual sight in the daytime—and two transit officers were posted outside to guide people away. But there were only a handful of people on the plaza. At this hour most commuters would be traveling to the station, not from it. And anyway, there was nothing for rubberneckers to see. Apart from the locked gates, nothing out of the ordinary was visible from the ground. (From Takoma inbound through Fort Totten and on to Union Station, where it goes underground, the Metro stands atop a concrete elevation.) I’d have hopped into my car to follow the tracks to Fort Totten, but I was under doctor’s orders not to drive for the rest of the day.

I went home instead and logged onto the Washington Post. News Channel 8 had Metro spokeswoman Kathy Asato saying Red Line trains were still operating between Glenmont and Takoma and between Shady Grove and Brookland. That couldn’t be right. There were no trains operating between Takoma and anywhere, because the Takoma station had been shut down completely. Another official on Channel 8 said there had been no single-tracking between Takoma station and Fort Totten when the incident took place. I don’t see how that could be right. For one thing, the trains collided. That can’t happen when trains occupy parallel tracks. And anyway, I ride that line home every day. Lately it’s been common for the train to stop and for the conductor to broadcast to passengers, “We’re waiting for the track to clear.”

That’s all I know. One thing about which the old masters (and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick) remain correct: Good eyewitness testimony is almost impossible to come by. But my intrepid neighbor David Corn of Mother Jones has these photos via his cell phone. All I can offer further is a fellow commuter’s memento mori; condolence to the families of the dead, as yet unidentified; and best wishes to the wounded for a speedy recovery.

[Update, June 23: The death toll now stands at nine. My speculation about “single-tracking” turns out to be irrelevant because this wasn’t a head-on collision, as I supposed last night; both trains were headed in the same direction. The train that got rear-ended was halted outside the Fort Totten station, waiting for a third train to clear out.]

AP: The D.C. Metrorail crash