When the Metro train pulled into the Silver Spring station late Monday afternoon, Michael Corcoran made a split-second decision that might have saved his life. Rather than hoof to the end car, which would conveniently deposit him beside an escalator at his destination, Union Station, he stepped into the third car and took a seat.
Corcoran, 39, just felt happy to be escaping his job as a federal contractor before 5 p.m. for a change. Even with the punishing two-hour-plus commute to Jarrettsville, he figured he'd get home early enough to play with his four kids, maybe even mow the grass.
He glanced at his BlackBerry once the Red Line train eased toward Washington. It was 4:56, plenty of time to catch the 5:20 MARC train to Aberdeen. A few minutes later, with the Metro train pausing, he put the phone back in its holster. That was when he felt a powerful jolt that caused the train to lurch forward.
"We just got hit," he recalls telling a woman across the aisle. The power went out, killing the lights and quieting the air-conditioning's hum. There was absolute silence.
Within minutes, Corcoran would come face to face with the reality of the worst train accident in the Washington Metro's history - the dripping blood, the agonized cries, fellow passengers in need of help.
But for those first few seconds, it struck him as merely a subway fender-bender: an accident that would delay his homecoming, but nothing remotely bad enough to kill nine people.
Here is his account of what happened after the impact:
Corcoran asked passengers around him if they were all right. Yes, everyone said. Some seats in that third car had come unlatched and tilted upward. Otherwise, nothing appeared amiss. So he thought it fine to mention how he'd skipped lunch and was looking forward to a burger at Union Station.
Do you want some crackers? asked the woman across the aisle. He did. Between bites he called his wife, Karen, in Harford County. The collision had not yet made the news. "I'm not going to make the 5:20," he said. "There's an accident." He didn't tell her it was serious because he didn't know.
But after they said goodbye, the train operator ran into the car from the front end, opening an emergency exit and checking on occupants as he made his way to the rear of the train. Then, passengers sitting in the three rear cars began to appear. One man limped. Someone shouted for help, asking for bandages or T-shirts to use to stop bleeding.
OK, this is kind of bad, Corcoran thought. He yanked off his polo shirt and undershirt. The undershirt he tore into strips, then headed to the back. He saw shattered windows, broken seats. In the last car, which bore the brunt of the impact, the air was smoky; debris lay scattered. On some windows, he saw streaks of blood.
Another passenger, who had put on purple latex gloves, spoke into his cell phone. Someone had to cut power to the electrified third rail, he said. The man paused long enough to tell Corcoran about a man and woman who needed help. He pointed outside the car to the ground several feet below.
Corcoran hopped down to the gravel. The third rail was on the other side of the car, so he did not need to worry about that. He knelt beside a young woman who looked to be in her 20s. Crying, she showed him her bloody foot, which he bandaged.
"People are coming; you'll be OK," he told her. He pivoted to a man in his 40s who gazed skyward and kept closing his eyes as he lay sprawled on the ground. "Stay with me," Corcoran commanded.
Looking up, Corcoran saw with terrible clarity what had happened: Another subway train had slammed into his. The first car of that train looked like a snake trying to swallow another, with a dangling handrail for fangs. With other passengers now helping, Corcoran climbed back into the mangled car. He could hear sirens and see Metro personnel.
As he handed out the last of his T-shirt strips, someone said they thought there was an injured man on the roof. Corcoran told this to the man in purple gloves, who said, "Oh, God." But Corcoran felt he could do no more and returned to the front of the train.
Uninjured, he walked out with others to a triage area, then waited for a bus to carry him on the rest of his journey. From the bus he called his wife again. Tearfully she scolded him for not telling her sooner just how serious it was. His mother in Northeast Baltimore had called her after seeing the news. He told his wife he did not want her to worry too much.
Corcoran eventually reached Union Station - it took three bus rides and a short hop on the Red Line - where he ate Italian food while waiting on the 8:40 to Aberdeen. Normally he sits in the second-to-last car; this time he chose one in the middle.
It was well after nightfall when he pulled into his driveway. His 2-year-old daughter Lily was asleep. But the others - Grace, 9; Michael, 11; and Katie, 13 - were still up. Barefoot, they raced to his car. Having heard that their father had helped people, they handed him a sign that said, "You're a hero."
After hugging his children, Corcoran walked inside. His wife stood on the steps leading up to the living room. "I'm home," he said, and she threw her arms around him and cried.