Northeast

Passengers on smoke-filled DC subway train reportedly waited at least 35 minutes for rescue

Jan. 13, 2015: A subway train departs the L'Enfant Metro Station in Washington. The NTSB is investigating an electrical malfunction that filled the station with smoke, killing one woman and sending dozens of people to hospitals. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Jan. 13, 2015: A subway train departs the L'Enfant Metro Station in Washington. The NTSB is investigating an electrical malfunction that filled the station with smoke, killing one woman and sending dozens of people to hospitals. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Passengers on a stalled subway train that began filling with smoke at one of Washington D.C.'s busiest stations Monday afternoon were made to wait at least 35 minutes to be rescued.

The Washington Post, citing three District of Columbia officials with access to emergency dispatch records, reported that the delay was partially due to confusion about whether power to the track's electrified third rail had been cut. 

The smoke resulted in the death of 61-year-old Carol Glover, of Alexandria, Va., while 83 other passengers were hospitalized, two in critical condition. Glover and many of the injured were on board a Virginia-bound train that stalled shortly after leaving the L'Enfant Plaza station. It was the first fatality on a DC Metro train since 2009, when a crash killed eight passengers and a train operator. 

According to the Post, the first report of smoke near the station came at 3:18 p.m. Monday. Two calls in the next six minutes from Metro Transit reported smoke in the station, and also reported that passengers were having trouble breathing. 

Four minutes later, at 3:28 p.m., the District's fire department declared a "Metro tunnel box alarm," code for fire in a train tunnel. The Post reports that the first firefighters arrived at the station three minutes later, at 3:31 p.m. Two minutes later, operators received their first 911 call from inside the train, from a passenger who said it was filling with smoke. 

Despite the quick initial response, emergency responders were not able to access the tunnel until 3:44 p.m., when Metro confirmed that power to the third rail had been shut off and it was safe to enter. One official told the Post that the next report from inside the train came at 4 p.m., when a paramedic reported being with a patient, though a text message from a passenger in the first of the six cars that the firemen reached indicated that emergency personnel reached the train at 3:48 p.m. 

Edward C. Smith, president of the D.C. firefighters union, told the Post that he believed the timeline showed a fast response. Other fire union officials told the paper that some personnel reported issues with their radios in the tunnel, forcing them to retreat closer to the station platform. 

The exact cause of the smoke is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, though NTSB investigator Michael Flanigon told the Associated Press the smoke started when something came into contact with the high-voltage third rail and caused an electrical arc. It is also not clear why the train stalled and was unable to move in the tunnel.

The Metrorail system, which connects Washington with the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, carries an average of 721,000 passengers each weekday. Smoke and fire are not unusual on the subway system, which opened in 1976 and still uses some original rail cars. Metro's most recent safety reports showed 86 incidents of smoke or fire in 2013 and 85 through the first eight months of 2014.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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