The last thing Victor Fernandez told his mom, Ana, was “I love you,” and she said it back. The last thing Sergio Fernandez did was hug his mom, and she kissed him on the forehead.
Shortly thereafter, Ana Fernandez died in Metrorail’s catastrophic 2009 Red Line crash that took nine lives.
The accident’s eighth anniversary was recognized June 22 at Legacy Memorial Park on New Hampshire Avenue in Northeast D.C., just above the tracks where it happened. The families and friends of three of the deceased held an informal remembrance and prayed together.
Sergio, who’s now 18 and just graduated from Northwood High School in Silver Spring, said it’s been hard growing up without his mother, “But you gotta move on. You have to grow up.” Victor, 20, who graduated from Northwood last year, said, “We do everything in honor of her, like she was here.”
The others killed in the accident were Veronica DuBose; Lavonda Nicole “Nikki” King; David Wherley Jr. and his wife, Ann Wherley; Mary Doolittle; Dennis Hawkins; Cameron Williams; and train operator Jeanice McMillan.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the accident occurred because a warning system intended to tell train operators when stationary trains were on the tracks ahead was not functioning. Train operator McMillan could not see the stationary train because it was around a curve on the tracks. All the deceased were in the front car of the train, which was going 55 miles per hour when, a second or two before the crash, she saw the stationary train and tried to apply the brakes.
Tawanda Brown, Nikki King’s mother, noted the stages of grieving she’s been through. At first, she said, she felt disbelief that such a thing could have happened.
Then, Brown continued, there was shock as she had to do things — identify the body, bury her daughter, clean out belongings, close up finances — that drove the new reality home. She went through other stages of grief, such as anger.
At some point, Brown added, “You accept it. You’re living with it. And your life changes.” That doesn’t mean it gets easier, she said, noting that many of the family members of the deceased in this accident, as well as people who’ve had similar losses, get post-traumatic stress disorder. One of Ann and David Wherley’s sons committed suicide not long after the accident, she noted.
Only in the past year, Brown said, has she been able to “grieve healthy. I’ve just learned to grieve healthy.”
Brown has raised Nikki King’s two sons, Andre, now 11, and Emmanuel, now 10. They go to elementary school at Andrews Air Force Base. She said, “That’s a great environment for them,” in part because there are other children in the school who have lost parents and the school knows how to support them.
Brown noted that several of the deceased were going through milestones when the accident happened. Nikki King, 23, had opened a hair salon just three days earlier. Veronica DuBose, 29 and a nurse, was on her way to the first class of a phlebotomy course, part of her plan to move up to be a registered nurse. Ana Fernandez, 40, had just obtained immigration residency for her oldest son, Antonio, now 29, to come from El Salvador. His sister, Evelin, said Antonio had been with his mother only 14 days when she died.
Carolyn Jenkins, Veronica DuBose’s mother, has raised the latter’s two children, Raja, now 15 and a rising high school junior, and Ava, now 9 and a rising fourth-grader. They live in Culpeper, Va.
Valerie Jenkins, a close friend of DuBose (no relation to Carolyn Jenkins), recalled that shortly after DuBose died, Raja said that “his heart was an egg; it was broken and couldn’t get fixed.” Today both are good students, and Raja is in ROTC at school. While he certainly misses his mother, he said, “I have to live my life.”
Ava, who never knew her mother, said she first realized other children had a different situation when she started school. “I’m sad, but not every day,” she added.
The children benefit from a good support system and loving family, Carolyn Jenkins said.
The families are planning a larger, more formal commemoration for the 10th anniversary of the accident in 2019, she added.
Before her mother died, “I was a regular teenager,” recalled Evelin Fernandez. After the accident, she was forced to “become the mom.” She became the legal guardian for her siblings. Their father had passed away in 2006.
Facing parenting duties at age 18, Evelin said, “I was scared, overwhelmed. I had to grow up fast.”
“I had to allow them,” her brothers and sister Jusara (now 22), to accomplish what her mother intended.
With Sergio’s recent graduation from high school, Evelin said she feels “honored” to have helped them.
“All have graduated. I know my mom wanted that for them.”
The last step, she acknowledged, is for her to return to school — which she delayed until her siblings finished their education.
Check out the photo gallery for this story!