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Posted at 5:49 PM ET, 03/24/2010

A life lost when a Metro escalator failed

By editors

By Sarah A. White

Ann Scott Tyson’s March 19 Metro article, “Ups and downs of riding Metro,” was particularly poignant for me and my family. Near the article’s end, a frustrated Metro rider, Stephen Johnson, was quoted as saying, “Maybe someone needs to have a heart attack to get the Metro folks’ attention.”

Sadly, as the article pointed out, that has already happened. My brother, Richard H. Smith, was the Metro rider in July 1998 who died of a heart attack after being forced to climb the equivalent of 10 stories — more than 200 feet — up the steps of a shut-down Bethesda station escalator.

As to the lawsuit my family filed after my brother’s death, after nearly 10 years of litigation that took us all the way to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, our suit was rejected on the finding that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, as a “quasi-public” agency, is largely immune from tort liability.

The tragedy is that the death of my brother, at age 38, did not get the attention of the Metro “folks.” Twelve years later the problem with the escalators is worse than ever. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my brother and wonder who will be the next victim.

By editors  | March 24, 2010; 5:49 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Metro  
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Please, Ms. White. Like my late brother who died instantly of a massive heart attack just short of his 45th birthday three years ago (in his home as he prepared to feed the family dog breakfast), your late brother, rest his soul, may have been a "victim," but he certainly wasn't a victim of Metro escalator policies.

Thirty-eight-year-olds don't die of heart attacks -- on big hikes up stairs or elsewhere -- unless they're genetically predisposed or have otherwise let themsleves become big, fat unfit slobs with several bad habits.

My brother was 40 lbs. overweight, smoked a pack of cigaretes a day, ate like Henry VIII, and consumed about a bucket's worth of coffee and cola a day while engaging in almost no exercise whatever.

He was a brilliant and loving husband, father and elementary school teacher adored by his students. He also was my best friend, and I miss him terribly. But the only thing that victimized him was his own sedentary, undisciplined lifestyle and incredibly poor health choices.

And speaking of choices, unless the Bethesda elevator was also out on the day your brother died, he could have chosen to wait in line for an easy ride up to street level.

In any case, you've got to move on and leave the depressing what-ifs behind. Forever embrace and hold the dear memories of your brother, but please stop thinking of him as a victim.

(BTW, I'm quite glad your pathetic lawsuit failed, especially considering that I and hundreds of thousands of daily Metro riders ultimately absorb the costs for such litigation.)

Posted by: mckdarrenDC | March 25, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

Dear mckdarrenDC,

I am Mr. Smith's other sister. Our sister, Ms. White, has moved on. Her letter to the editor was in response to an article in the Post that mentioned our brother. She was simply providing more detail.

Our brother was not a 'big, fat unfit slob' as you state. He was slightly overweight (like most Americans). He didn't smoke and was definitely not sedentary. I don't even think that he was aware that he had a heart condition.

At the Bethesda Metro station there are 3 escalators. On that code red July day, one was broken down, and a second was shut down for routine maintenance. The third was stopped so that people could walk up or down it. All Metro needed to do was to postpone the maintenance work until the broken one was fixed. Then they would have had one escalator to ride up and one to ride down.

As for the elevators, I have been on Metro with a stroller. And believe me the elevators are not obvious. I have had to search for some of them. Since our brother didn't know of his heart condition, he didn't know that he should search for an elevator.

I believe that the main purpose of the lawsuit was to prevent this from happening to someone else's family member.

Posted by: RicksSis | March 25, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

MckdarrenDC's comment: "BTW, I'm quite glad your pathetic lawsuit failed, especially considering that I and hundreds of thousands of daily Metro riders ultimately absorb the costs for such litigation" makes me wonder how she/he feels about the nine deaths and scores of serious injuries as a result of the Metro crash in June of last year. The tragedy of Metro's longstanding escalator problems is that they have proved to be ominous warning signs of WMATA malfeasance and mismanagement. Now we'll have tens of millions of dollars in settlement money going out to the families and loved ones of the crash victims...and justifiably so. I wonder if mckdarrenDC begrudges them, too?

Posted by: hwhite2 | March 25, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

mckdarren's comment might be the single most insensitive, cruel comment I've read on this website and that says a lot.

My condolences to Mr. White's sisters and his other family members. I'm sorry to hear that your lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful. It's so sad that your family could not have helped hold Metro accountable for its deplorable maintenance practices.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | March 25, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, WashingtonDame for your kind words. Our family would agree with you that we were disappointed to find that Metro would not be held accountable in any way for their negligence. My brother was not a big, fat unfit slob with bad habits. I have moved on and have dealt with his death completely (clearly unlike mckdarrenDC and his feelings re: his own brother's death) but am unable to think of our lawsuit in anyway as pathetic. Metro needs to be held accountable for their maintenance practices.

Posted by: s3hwhite | March 25, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

I was on 4 different escalators yesterday during my Metro commute, NONE of which worked right. The first one had a horrible screeching noise; on the second (Metro Center) the right handrail would take a jolt as it stopped for a split second every couple of feet; the third was similar to the first making a screeching noise; and the forth was actually scary as it bounced and jolted as it screeched along, seemingly hitting a couple broken parts inside.

MetroRail has all but been destroyed by Catoe and Kubicek over the last 3 years. Nothing works right. Nothing is safe. Under their "culture of change" leadership the took America's best subway and CHANGED it into America's worst. Metro needs to CHANGE leadership and bring in someone who knows how to run a railroad NOW or it will NEVER recover.

Posted by: ryanc22032 | March 26, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

There is no implication that escalators will work. They are a convenience. The insane practice of people suing due to a sense of entitlement in this country needs to end.

Posted by: netsurf12 | March 26, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Sorry for the loss of Rick and others due to Metro's failures. I think the insensitive clod (mcdarren) should be relegated to sensitivity training but I'm sure that'll never happen.
Sorry to hear that Metro didn't have any liability. Sorry to say but the bigger issue isn't just the loss of Rick's life but the stupid decisions to go forth wih certain maintenance when it's obvious that it doesn't make sense to do it at that time.
I do believe that americans file frivolous lawsuits but I also believe that makes us americans.

Posted by: ColoredSpirit | March 26, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

netsurf12 wrote: There is no implication that escalators will work. They are a convenience. The insane practice of people suing due to a sense of entitlement in this country needs to end.

So if escalators are a convenience, how is one supposed to get out of the station? I would consider neither escalators nor elevators a "convenience" when there is no traditional stairway. Elevators, really, are never a convenience as they are there for ADA considerations. Maybe you should think before you post.

Posted by: JG08 | March 26, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

JG08 wrote:
So if escalators are a convenience, how is one supposed to get out of the station?

One could ride the working escaltors, walk up the non-working escalators, or take the elevator.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | March 30, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

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