How lives converged on tragic stretch of rail Collision: One train's timely departure, the other's delay, passengers' many small decisions -- all coalesced on a snowy Friday evening in Silver Spring.

February 25, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Mark Matthews, Greg Tasker, Tom Bowman, Fred Rasmussen, Suzanne Wooton, Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

The snow had been falling all that Friday -- big, soft flakes that piled up fast. The snow-slick roads would be dangerous. The visibility would be poor.

Safer to take the train.

So Tyrai Boyer, 17, who usually took the bus home to Philadelphia from the Job Corps site in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where he was learning brick masonry, this time caught Maryland Rail Commuter Train 286.

Seventeen other Job Corps students boarded the first car with him, joking and pushing as they looked forward to their free Presidents Day weekend. The train left Brunswick on time at 4:30 p.m., three mostly empty passenger cars pushed by a locomotive, winding southeast to Washington along the picturesque Potomac River.

And 49.8 miles of track away, inside Union Station, the 175 passengers booked on the Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago were growing restless. Their scheduled 4:05 p.m. departure had passed and still they were sitting in the stuffy lounges, wondering and grumbling mildly about the delay.

But many of them, including Barbara J. Ross, 70, a retired schoolteacher returning from a visit to her sister in Fort Lauderdale to her home in Muskegon, Mich., didn't mind the time. They were willing to wait for Amtrak because they just didn't trust airplanes.

Safer to take the train.

Except that on this night of Feb. 16, random facts -- the late Amtrak departure, the almost on-time MARC departure, the decision of the Job Corps students to sit in the front car, the design of the MARC car's emergency exits -- would conspire to produce tragedy.

The two trains would meet in a terrible coincidence of crumpled metal and blazing fuel, terrified passengers pounding shatterproof windows to escape, rescuers driven back by heat and fear of explosion. And 11 people on the MARC train -- eight of the Job Corps students, three crewmen -- would not survive.

'It was gloomy out'

On the MARC local, the Job Corps crew settled in for the 80-minute ride, talking, laughing, dozing. They were a tightknit bunch, 16 to 23 years old, most of them from big cities between Richmond, Va., and New York, two young women and 16 young men united by disadvantaged childhoods and a desire to overcome them.

Like several of the kids, Tyrai wore his Walkman, relaxing to his favorite music: Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J, Craig Mack. His duffel bag was loaded with dirty clothes destined for his mother's washer.

Damian Benitez, 19, another Philadelphian, was looking forward to hanging out with his older brother, maybe catching a movie or going to a dance club. He was a few months into his Job Corps program, learning house-painting and the more arcane arts of wallpaper, stucco, sandblasting. He had found the Job Corps rules strict but decided that "that's what makes you a man."

Diana Hanvichid, 17, was heading home to Woodbridge, Va. She had passed her high school equivalency test in November and was working at the Heartland Nursing Home, considering a career in health care. Michael Woodson, 17, of Philadelphia, had insisted on coming home despite his mother's protests, because he wanted to give her the Valentine's presents he had purchased.

The group's two Baltimoreans were Dante Swain, 18, an aspiring carpenter who had just passed the last math test for a high school equivalency diploma, and Carlos Byrd, 18, who played on the Job Corps basketball team and hoped to go into medicine.

At 4:41, the MARC train reached the station at Point of Rocks, and the train creaked and lurched as it changed tracks. Someone joked about a train wreck, and macabre humor bounced around the lighthearted group. Damian Benitez, the rapper Scarface playing in his headphones, remarked, "They're trained for that," gesturing at the engineer and conductor visible through a glass panel at the front of the car.

In the cab, engineer Richard Orr, 43, of Glen Burnie was at the controls, a 25-year rail veteran who had been promoted from freight to passenger trains in the last couple of years. The conductor, Linthicum resident James E. Major Jr., 48, had passed through the car collecting tickets and joined Mr. Orr in the cab. Assistant conductor James Quillen, 53, of Frederick had his Bible with him, as he always did when he rode the rails.

Passing from Frederick County into Montgomery, the train headed straight toward Washington as the Potomac meandered away to the south. "It was gloomy out, even though it was daytime," Damian Benitez would remember. "The snow was coming down quick."

As usual, the MARC 286 was uncrowded as it ran against the rush hour. It raced through rural crossroads into burgeoning bedroom exurbs: Dickerson, Barnesville, Boyds, Germantown, Metropolitan Grove, Gaithersburg, Washington Grove.

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