Passenger talks of his experience surviving the 2009 Metrorail crash
On really hot days, we might call air conditioning a “lifesaver.” On June 22, 2009, some good air conditioning on a Metro platform actually helped to save Patrick Tuite’s life.
Tuite was a survivor of the horrific Metrorail crash that day that took nine lives, on a Red Line train going from the Takoma to the Fort Totten station. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the accident occurred because a warning system, intended to alert Metrorail operators of stationary trains on the tracks ahead, was not functioning.
Tuite, now 50, was on his way to teach a summer-school night class at Catholic University of America. He was, and still is, a professor at the university’s theater department.
Until the accident, Tuite said he almost always rode near the front of the front car of Metro. “I thought it was safer to sit near the operator,” he explained. “It was also nice to look out the front window with my kids.”
All nine people killed in the crash are believed to have been toward the front of the front car. The front car survivors were toward the rear at the moment of the crash.
Connecting that belief with what happened in the crash, he noted that there were survivors in the first car, that some second car passengers had much worse injuries than he did, and some people even in the back car were gravely injured in the six-car train. “A lot of it’s by chance,” he noted. “It’s how you fell. It’s what [parts of the car] you hit [as you fell].”
That day, Tuite parked his car at the Wheaton station parking garage. “It was a very hot afternoon,” he recalled. An area of the subway platform had good air conditioning, and he stood there waiting. “When the train pulled up, I just stepped in right there”— into the second car. He sat down on the right side facing forward on the second seat from the front of the car.
Once the train left Wheaton, Tuite read the newspaper until Silver Spring, and then put it down to rest. Shortly after leaving Takoma, the operator announced a delay between stations because another train had not left Fort Totten. The train “started again, and reached what felt like a normal speed,” he recalled. Then the train “abruptly shuddered, [made] a grinding noise, and slowed down,” which Tuite later believed was the operator “using the emergency brake before we hit the other train.”
“There was a loud bang, and the train jolted to a stop,” Tuite said. “I was thrown from my seat to the floor with my belongings.” From hindsight, he added, “Because I was dozing and relaxed, I kind of rolled.” That may help explain why he wasn’t hurt badly, he said.
In his 2009 statement to the National Transportation Safety Board, Tuite said his recollection of the seconds before the crash—the train shuddering and the brake noises—was strong “evidence suggest[ing] that [train operator Jeanice McMillan] was alert and was not aware of the presence of another train waiting on the tracks near the New Hampshire Avenue Bridge.” The track makes a turn under that bridge, so McMillan could not have seen the train on the tracks. Tuite asserted: “She should not be held responsible for the errors and oversights that led to this tragedy.” McMillan died in the crash.
Once the crash happened, and he realized he could move around, Tuite wanted to help other passengers. The first task was for passengers in the second car to leave the train. After “a woman used the emergency handle to open the door a few inches, I grabbed one side and forced it open,” he said. He and another man, David Holland, helped everyone climb down from the train.
Then Tuite climbed back into the second car and joined two men from the third car in trying to open the door to the first car, because the surviving passengers there were trapped, “screaming and crying.” The group could not get the first car door open.
A Metro employee, the first official Tuite saw after the crash, came by and “told me and the other two men to leave the train quickly…. I jumped from the train at the third or fourth car,” both of which were empty by then.
“I helped people get out of the [last two] cars who could not jump,” he said. “It was a pretty big jump from the door to the ground,” he noted. “I helped lower a woman dressed in scrubs from the train. She had been hurt in the initial impact, but she said she was a nurse and went toward the first car anyway. There were still people in the last car, and they could not move one person to the side door because of their [own] injuries.”
As first responders arrived, they had trouble getting their equipment to the accident site, Tuite said. To evaluate injuries, “the firemen and emergency medical techs set up a triage” in the parking lot of nearby Jarboe Printers.
“I was the last passenger not on a stretcher to leave,” Tuite said. He rode along with another passenger in an ambulance. “I arrived at Holy Cross Hospital [in Silver Spring, and] was examined by a physician’s assistant. [I had] no injuries. I just wanted a record after a long day.”
“My wife works as a nurse at Holy Cross,” he said. “She picked me up from the emergency room.”
In the three weeks after the crash until his testimony at a July 2009 NTSB hearing, “No representative of Metro contacted me,” he said. Recalling that time, Tuite said, “I was very angry about that.” It was “very therapeutic” to write and publicly deliver his statement to NTSB, he added, and it now serves as a detailed reminder to him of what he went through in the crash.
For several months afterwards, Tuite stayed in touch with David Holland and two other crash survivors. They began talking about continuing traumas from the crash, both physical and mental, and about hiring lawyers and filing suit against Metro.
“I had no physical injury. I was stiff a little, and it went away,” he said. “I couldn’t identify with the other victims. I decided that a prolonged legal battle was not in my interests or my family’s.” Tuite declined to hire a lawyer.
Around that time, “Metro contacted me, and said they’d be willing to settle. They named a number. I accepted.”
Metro scheduled a day to finalize the matter. Tuite went to Metro headquarters and brought along his son, who was six at the time. “They had me wait in the lobby,” he said. “It felt like they didn’t want me in the building.”
Finally, someone came down with release papers for him to sign and a check. Everything was executed and exchanged in the lobby. “It was somewhat humiliating,” he said.
The settlement amount was “about $2,000,” he added.
Tuite rarely rides Metrorail these days, not out of fear, but because “it’s easier to drive and not be concerned about single-tracking,” he said. “When I do take Metro, it’s almost always a hassle. We’re not getting back in service what we’re paying in taxes.”
He also criticized Metro’s safety record since the 2009 crash. Apart from the 2015 smoke incident that killed a passenger, “there have been other accidents where they’ve lost Metro employees,” he noted. Those events show “negligence by Metro.”
The eighth anniversary of the accident and the nine victims was recognized June 22 at Legacy Memorial Park on New Hampshire Avenue in Northeast D.C., just above the tracks where it happened.
“I drive by the memorial on New Hampshire Avenue and realize some families had a much harder day than I did,” Tuite said.
In addition to three state governments that put money into the system (including D.C.), “Congress should put more money behind it,” he contended. Metro “transports federal workers.”
“There are many other massive public works around here,” Tuite said. The federal and state governments could do much better with enough money and effort, he asserted.
Metrorail has a decent future if it gets safer and more reliable, Tuite predicted. Many people prefer Metro to cars and buses, and many millennials want to live near Metro stops, he noted.
And no, Tuite no longer rides in the front or back car of any train.
“I got lucky that day,” he said. “I believe I’m blessed every day. I also believe in chance.”