The woman at the controls of a transit train that plowed into another would have done anything to prevent the accident, friends and relatives said Tuesday, a day after the crash killed her and eight others.
Jeanice McMillan was a devoted mom to her college-age son and while she had struggled financially, she loved her job ferrying commuters and tourists around the nation’s capital, those who knew her said.
“If she could have stopped the train, she would have done everything in her power,” said Joanne Harrison, a neighbor at McMillan’s apartment building in Springfield, Va.
Investigators were looking at why a computerized system failed to halt the train and why other safeguards, including a manual emergency brake, did not work.
Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said there has been no indication that McMillan, 42, was sending text messages or talking on a cell phone, which contributed to passenger train crashes in other cities, though federal investigators were checking her cell phone records to be certain.
McMillan also was known to sleep at the office after her shift ended occasionally, and she was finishing up her work week. While investigators have not suggested fatigue played a part in the crash, they were reviewing McMillan’s schedule in the days leading up to the crash as a routine part of the probe.
Friends and relatives were just trying to deal with the loss of a woman who took great pride in a job they never considered dangerous.
“Nobody’s doing well at all. It’s still very, very surreal,” said Lisa McMillan, 39, who lives in Hyattsville, Md., and is married to the train operator’s brother, Gerald, 41. “It is a void that will never ever be filled.”
McMillan, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, moved to the Washington area about a dozen years ago, her family said. She worked for the U.S. Postal Service for several years before joining the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in 2007 as a bus driver. She became a train operator in March.
Every night before work, McMillan would iron her Metro uniform, Harrison said.
“Her house was always neat and in order. You open her refrigerator, it’s like you were opening the door to a showcase,” she said.
McMillan lived a modest life, and there were signs she was being stretched thin. Her apartment complex sued her five times between December 2006 and May 2008 for paying part of her rent late, according to court records. One case was dismissed, but she was ordered to pay costs totaling $2,246 for the other cases.
Metro officials would not disclose her salary.
McMillan was killed driving the first train on her 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, said Aicha Mezlini, a neighbor who has known McMillan since 2005. She and other neighbors said McMillan’s schedule had just changed so that she was wrapping up her work week Monday.
Federal investigators said Tuesday that the train was running on automatic, which is common during rush hour. Jackie Jeter, president of the Metro workers’ union, said she doesn’t doubt some operators may occasionally “zone out,” though she’s confident such episodes are rare.
“Safety is of the utmost,” Jeter said. “It’s always on everyone’s mind.”
Iyesha Thomas, a Metro employee who worked with McMillan, said her colleague would often work the late shift and didn’t have a car. If McMillan didn’t have a ride home, she would sleep at Metro’s offices and then take the first train home and come back into work later that day.
“She was a great, humble person,” Thomas said.
Another neighbor, Leeza Kanwal, said the train operator would go out of her way to help others, such as helping Kanwal carry groceries and tote laundry while Kanwal was pregnant.
“I’ve seen her come home from work and be really tired and see that I needed help,” Kanwal said. “I wouldn’t do that after a 10-hour shift at work.”
Those close to McMillan said her 19-year-old son Jordan, meant everything to her. Family members said he attends Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.
Mezlini said Jordan McMillan was at his mother’s apartment Monday and began worrying after hearing news of the crash.
He kept calling his mom on her cell phone, Mezlini said, “but nobody answered.”