I mostly think of Fort Totten as a transfer point, where I have spent a not insignificant portion of my life riding the escalators up or down two levels and waiting for a Red Line or Green Line train. The immediate area includes residential neighborhoods, Civil War Defense Forts that are now mostly green space, a library and recreation center, and new development that is slated to include a future children’s museum.
The station is also near the site of the deadliest collision in the history of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). On June 22, 2009, a moving Metro train crashed into a stopped Metro train between Takoma and Fort Totten, killing nine people (eight passengers and the operator of the moving train) and injuring dozens more. Investigations after the tragedy revealed that a faulty circuit caused the stopped train not to appear on the train control system, so that the system sent the moving train into what looked like clear, empty track.
There are a few tributes to the tragedy in and near the Fort Totten station, including a plaque inside the station and another one on the side of an overpass nearby. The biggest memorial to the accident is Legacy Memorial Park, located about three quarters of a mile from the station.
According to the DC government’s website, the purpose of the site is “meditation, remembrance, reflection, hope and renewal for all affected by the tragedy.” It’s a perfectly lovely little park, with nine artfully sculpted columns in memory of the nine lives lost, a curved wall with a memorial quote, and greenery.
The location itself is meaningful, as it was at that spot that first responders set up their operations and triage after the collision, according to an article in USA Today. As reported in the article, the memorial offered a sense of closure to victims’ loved ones who attended the site’s opening ceremony in 2015.
In a 2011 NPR interview, art historian Simon Schama discussed the 9/11 Memorial in New York and what generally makes memorials “work.” He spoke of “reconciling…two goals” of “a somber remembrance” for the “immediate rites of grief,” and the need to “reflect on the reasons for the sacrifice.”
Schama’s words hint at why Legacy Memorial Park doesn’t quite work for me as a visitor. I appreciate the design, and the solace that the space provides to family and friends of the deceased.
Yet I can’t help but notice that “Legacy Memorial Park” is the most generic name ever, that the location is not marked on the Fort Totten station’s map of immediate surroundings (even though it’s well within the area covered by the map), and that the walk from station to park is not straightforward or intuitive or pedestrian-friendly.
Is there a metaphor in there? WMATA has not always had the best track record (excuse the pun) for either safety or communication. Legacy Memorial Park – which, like Metro, is meant to be a public good, accessible to people with or without a car – fails in similar areas. It is not the easiest place to locate or safely reach on foot, and once you are there, there is little sense of the “reasons for the sacrifice” which in this case were so tragically preventable.
Schama said that “a free society, a democratic society needs occasionally to ask those questions”–that is, “why they perished.” He was speaking in particular of a memorial to a horrendous terrorist attack, but asking those questions is also necessary when it comes to holding leaders accountable for an unsafe transit system.
The USA Today article linked above quotes a grieving daughter who asked, very rhetorically, “why my mom, why,” reminding readers of the heartbreak that continued to linger six years later for those who lost loved ones in the crash. At the same time, the article reports that government officials spoke of the importance of investigating WMATA’s safety lapses, changing the culture at the agency so that potential dangers are taken seriously, and providing adequate funding to maintain the system. The goal is to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again; this time, “why?” is being asked in a more concrete and action-oriented sense.
Visitors can pause to remember the victims of the train wreck at Legacy Memorial Park (located at the intersection of South Dakota and New Hampshire Avenues NE at the entrance of the Blair Road Community Garden), and we all can honor their memories by working for safer public transportation in the future.
Fort Totten is on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines.