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9/11 general among D.C. train crash victims

The people who stepped on Metro's Red Line cars on a warm summer evening were the perfect cross section of the careers and characters who make the nation's capital so compelling.
Image: Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr.
Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. and his wife Ann were both killed in Monday's Metrorail train crash in Washington, D.C. AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The people who stepped on Metro's Red Line cars on a warm summer evening were the perfect cross section of the careers and characters who make the nation's capital so compelling: a military general, a Bible school teacher, single moms balancing work and children. It was during that common gray space of their day, while they passed the time reading a book or fighting the urge to sleep, that a single event united nine of those diverse people in a common tragic fate.

There was no warning Monday evening when the click-clack and hum of the Metro commute smash-cut to breaking glass and screams, according to survivors of the crash near the Fort Totten Station that killed train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42, of Springfield and eight passengers.

At a memorial service yesterday at the transit agency, someone read Psalm 23. A black cloth was draped over the Metro symbol. People prayed for those whose life stories unfolded before them. Ana Fernandez, the woman who left behind so many children. LaVonda "Nikki" King, an aspiring beautician.

"It's a common bond. Everybody at some point uses Metro," said Phillip Barrett Jr., who paused to remember those who died. "Everybody was going about their everyday routine. Then this happened."

Among the dead was retired Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. of Washington, a man whose career put him in far more dangerous situations than an evening commute aboard public transit. Wherley, a command pilot who logged more than 5,000 hours in military aircraft, gave the order to scramble planes over Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

'He was special'
Wherley, 62, who later became the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, was lauded for the educational programs he helped create for high school dropouts.

But his military résumé and presence did not define who he was, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

"He was special because he became one of us, instead of the general who commanded our National Guard," Norton said. "I remember how proudly he told me that he and his wife had bought a condominium in the District so they could become residents."

Wherley's wife, Ann Wherley, 62, a mortgage banker, was also killed.

The day of the terrorist attacks, her husband was commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews Air Force Base. He detailed the harrowing minutes of tough decision making in a Washington Post interview in 2002.

Wherley said the moment he knew the attacks would go beyond New York was when one of his officers, whose husband worked at the Pentagon, saw on television that the second tower of the World Trade Center had been hit and began shrieking.

"You've got to be strong," Wherley told the officer before racing out of the building and running several hundred yards to squadron headquarters. There, officers wanted to head to the skies right away, but Wherley was measured. "We have to get some instructions," Wherley told squadron officers. "We can't just fly off half-cocked."

The general went to work through classified communications channels and within a half-hour received oral instructions from the White House giving the pilots extraordinary discretion to shoot down any threatening aircraft.

Norton said Wherley recently had heart surgery for a valve problem but was recovering and was planning a trip to Europe in October.

The death of Ana Fernandez, 40, brings the reverberations of the calamity into stark numbers. Nearly a dozen children were left motherless because of the crash, and six of them belonged to Fernandez.

Outside a Hyattsville apartment building yesterday, Oscar Flores wiped tears from his swollen, red eyes and gazed across a playground packed with children and new responsibility. The toddler with pigtails on a tricycle; the 10-year-old and 12-year-old boys in striped polo shirts, sulking atop the monkey bars; the 14-year-old and 18-year-old girls slouching beside the swing set, staring off, lost in thought. They are all now his, and his alone. His wife was gone.

"I can't believe it," said Flores, 35, speaking in Spanish. He picked up Jackie, the youngest and the one they shared, and buried his head against hers. Flores had just returned from the morgue, where he had officially identified his wife and been told for the first time that she had died in the twist of mangled wreckage. Both her legs had been sheared off in the impact, he said.

She had returned two weeks ago to her old night commute to the District and a job cleaning offices.

"She was always working — working two jobs. She did whatever she had to to take care of us," said Evelyn Fernandez, her oldest daughter, who is enrolled in a GED program. "She was a strong woman. She never needed anyone to help her."

Ana Fernandez and Flores, a window washer, had been on opposite schedules since she had returned to work. They hadn't seen each other in a week, he said. Fernandez spent her last hours Monday with her children, they said.

LaVonda "Nikki" King, 23, of Northeast Washington had boarded the Metro chattering away about her new career. She was on the phone with her mother, talking about the fliers she wanted to make to promote her new business, LaVonda's House of Beauty.

"I was talking to her as she entered the train," said her mother, Tawanda Brown of Upper Marlboro. "She was so excited. She had so many dreams about the salon." King had signed the paperwork for the Forestville salon space just Friday and was headed to pick up her sons, ages 2 and 3, from day care.

When Brown saw the crash coverage on TV, she knew: "My daughter's on that train." She spent a sickening night visiting six hospitals before authorities knocked on her door at 3 a.m. to tell her King was dead.

Relatives who gathered outside King's apartment in the Kenilworth neighborhood remembered the bright young woman who took public transportation everywhere and dreamed of buying a car and making a better life for her sons.

Veronica DuBose's ambition brought her to the Metro that Monday evening. The 29-year-old mother of two young children was riding the subway to attend nursing classes in the District to earn higher levels of certification, according to her stepmother, YaVonne DuBose.

When YaVonne DuBose heard about the accident, she texted her stepdaughter to make sure she was okay. But YaVonne did not hear back from Veronica, who worked as a nurse at an assisted living facility in Northwest. "If we had a middle name for Veronica, it would be 'Text.' She and I would keep in touch very often," YaVonne said.

Yesterday afternoon, YaVonne DuBose finally got word from detectives about her stepdaughter's death on the Metro. Veronica, of the District, left behind Raja, 8, and 18-month-old Ava.

"I know everyone is here for a purpose. She was in our lives for a purpose," YaVonne DuBose said. "There is something about her that gives me the sense that she is a nurse. They are very conscientious. She's a problem solver. She's a no-nonsense, absolute person."

Scores of children in different parts of the District were affected by the loss of Dennis Hawkins, 64, of Washington.

Hawkins had no children of his own, but he was beloved by kids at the school where he worked and in the church where he taught, friends and relatives said.

He was on his way from work at Whittier Education Center in Northwest Washington to teach vacation Bible school in Ivy City when he was killed in the crash.

'I dropped to the floor'
A family friend, Christina Cobb, 23, was sitting in her Bowie bedroom early on Monday evening, chatting with a girlfriend on the telephone, when she heard the call waiting signal. It was her aunt. "Chrissy? Hi, it's Aunt Dora. Where's your mom?'' Cobb recalled. Cobb, who works at a consulting firm, got up from her bedroom, sensing her aunt's urgent tone, and headed toward her mother's bedroom down the hallway.

"She said, 'Dennis was on the train. Dennis Hawkins,' " Cobb said. Then she asked her aunt if he was okay. "She said, 'No. He was one of the fatalities.' That's when I dropped to the floor."

Members of Bethesda Baptist Church waited and waited for their Bible school teacher to arrive Monday night. Cobb's grandmother was enrolled. Finally, word from Hawkins's family reached a church official. And they began to mourn.

Nicole Clifton, principal at Whittier, said Hawkins was a retired teacher who worked as Whittier's right-hand man.

"He was the heartbeat of the school. He was my go-to person," Clifton said. "Kids loved him; parents loved him."

About 4:30 p.m. Monday, Clifton was leaving, and she recalled the last words she heard Hawkins speak: "Good night, all; good night, Dr. Clifton. I'll see you in the morning," she said. Clifton heard news of the crash and tried to phone Hawkins to tell him to find a route other than the Red Line.

Proud Texan
Mary "Mandy" Doolittle, 59, of Washington was a proud Texan who was the joy of her office at the American Nurses Association in Silver Spring, said executive director Jeanne Floyd.

"She was highly committed to nursing around the globe. She was not a nurse, but she was the face of this organization internationally," Floyd said.

Doolittle had lived in Italy some years ago and was finally planning a return visit in July with her partner of 15 years, friends said.

Ann Miller, a friend, said: "She always greeted everyone with a wide smile, a giggly 'Hello!' and a hug or a double-clasped handshake that she'd keep firm hold of while she asked you how you'd been."

It was an ordinary work day for Cameron Williams on Monday. He cooked himself breakfast, then surfed the Web and did some light cleaning around the house while he chatted with his aunt and grandmother in the afternoon.

Just as he was preparing to go off to his night contract worker job downtown, he stopped on the porch of the Takoma Park home he shared with his grandmother and talked to his aunt about the weekend. Maybe he'd go to Carter Barron.

"Then he turned the corner and headed to the Metro," Shirley Williams said of her 37-year-old nephew, the oldest of five brothers who grew up in the city and graduated from Coolidge High School. "I watched him until I couldn't see him anymore."

Metro has established a $250,000 relief fund for survivors and relatives of victims to assist them with medical, funeral and other immediate expenses.