Two Metro workers were struck and killed by a piece of equipment on the Red Line Tuesday morning near the Rockville station, continuing a string of tragic fatal accidents involving the beleaguered transit system.
The Metro employees, both men, were struck at about 1:45 a.m. by a high rail truck, a large truck that is equipped with special wheels that allow it to drive on the track when electricity that usually powers trains is taken down.
"Something went horribly wrong this morning and they were struck by the vehicle," said Metro's Lisa Farbstein.
The truck, carrying a crew of four workers was driving in reverse from Shady Grove to Rockville when the victims were struck. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a possible communication breakdown between the two groups of workers.
"From everything we know at this point, this great tragedy was a direct result of human error," Metro Board of Directors chair and D.C. Councilman Jim Graham said at a Tuesday evening news conference. "And I'm not prepared to go into details on that, but I did want to say that much to you today."
The NTSB is investigating communications between the operations control center and both crews in an attempt to determine why the truck was traveling on the same track where another crew was working.
One worker, 49-year-old Jeff Garrard, died at the scene. The other, 68-year-old Sung Oh, died on the way to the hospital.
"Jeff was always aware of the risk involved in his job, and he took what precautions he had to to be safe," said Grace Garrard, Jeff Garrard's wife of 20 years.
The victims, both automatic train technicians, were installing new automatic train control equipment in the track bed. A failure in the automatic train control system, which detects the presence of a train on the track, is believed to have contributed to the June crash that killed nine people. However, Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said the work being done Tuesday morning was routine maintenance.
"I know safety has been intensified," Graham said. "I know a great deal of effort goes into identifying what happened during the maintenance hours on these tracks. It is mystifying, and I don't know what caused this, but if it's a question of distraction or not paying attention to one's duties, that is of great concern to us."
Regarding the safety of Metro workers, Grace Garrard had a suggestion: "I think that Metro needs to listen to its workers and not its lawyers."
Both workers lived in Montgomery County, Md., Metro said. Garrard, of Clarksburg, had worked for Metro since 1990, and Oh had worked there since 1998.
"This great tragedy, still another great tragedy in terms of the loss of Metro employees, touches us very deeply," Graham said.
There has been a series of fatal accidents and mishaps on Metro since last year. The worst was the June crash that killed eight passengers and the train operator. Two other workers were killed in separate accidents last year.
Last month, a team of inspectors were nearly hit by a train that Metro officials say was traveling too fast. Three workers were hurt
in November when a train returning to a northern Virginia rail yard hit a parked train.
"There's also been, I believe, five suicides," Graham said. "It's a spate of unbelievable incidents."
Red Line service was shut down between the Shady Grove, Rockville and Twinbrook stations Tuesday, but they reopened at about noon. Delays continue in both directions.
The transit agency provided free shuttle bus service during the closures, and customers were encouraged to avoid the Shady Grove and Rockville Metrorail stations use the nearby Twinbrook and Grosvenor-Strathmore Metrorail stations to catch a train.