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One Dead, 84 Hospitalized After Smoke Fills Metro Tunnel, Yellow Line Train

NTSB investigating incident

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A mass casualty unit responded to Monday's deadly Metro incident.
Lauren Landau/WAMU
A mass casualty unit responded to Monday's deadly Metro incident.

This story was updated at 8:45 a.m.

One woman died after smoke filled Metro tunnels and a Yellow Line train outside the L'Enfant Plaza station on Monday afternoon, prompting an evacuation and shutting down service between Navy Yard and Mount Vernon Square during the afternoon rush.

Metro officials said that the woman, who had not been identified, passed away after being on the smoke-filled train. Two more people remain in critical condition. All told, 84 were transported to local hospitals after the incident, and another 200 were evaluated at the scene.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced on Monday evening that it is investigating the incident, which marked the first loss of passenger lives on the transit agency since a fatal crash on the Red Line in 2009.

Metro is replacing Yellow Line service Tuesday with Blue Line trains running every 12 minutes while the NTSB investigation continues on the Yellow Line. Shuttle service is also available between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza.

The sequence of events

The smoke was first reported at 3:20 p.m. NPR editor Luis Clemens was on a train leaving the L'Enfant Plaza station heading to Reagan National Airport when the train abruptly stopped, the lights turned off and it started filling with smoke. He says the train conductor told riders not to open the doors so the train could go back to the platform.

But as more smoke poured into the train, he says, a small group of passengers decided to evacuate.

"More and more smoke was coming in... more and more people coughing and discussions about whether we should get off the train, and finally a few of us decided it's time," he says. (Listen to his full story here.)

Clemens says that he and a group of fellow passengers exited the train and walked back towards L'Enfant Plaza in the tunnels. They tried to stay as close to the ground as possible to avoid inhaling too much smoke.

Jonathan Rogers, an employee with the D.C. Department of Transportation, was on the same train, but remained in the rail car as instructed by the conductor. He says the smoke affected a number of passengers around him, including a woman who passed out and had to be given CPR.

"One woman... was keeling over, and on the floor and saying she couldn't breathe. We were trying to fan her and give her water, and then she started laying down and eventually she stopped talking. We tried to give her CPR for 20, 25 minutes. It just didn't seem to be doing anything," he says.

The passengers eventually evacuated to the back of the train, and the woman who had passed out was carried out of the train. "I have no idea what happened to her. She was kinda of vomiting a little bit, but then we couldn't feel a pulse," he says.

"It was scary, but people were pretty calm considering," says Rogers. (Listen to the full interview with him here.) But Clemens describes the situation as more chaotic.

"It was chaos, it was chaos, it was chaos and the information we were getting on the loudspeaker was confusing and not helpful, and really, we should've started evacuation of that subway sooner. Obviously I don't have all the information of what was going on... but it was getting scary," he says.

Clemens says the smoke was so bad when he got in a cab outside the station, the cab driver asked him, "What's the smell of smoke?"

Questions turn to response

Though he emerged safely from the train and tunnels, Clemens said that communication and clarity on how to respond was lacking. "We needed some better coordination and leadership from Metro," he says.

After a 2013 incident in which a group of passengers self-evacuated from a stranded Green Line train, Metro was criticized for not properly communicating to passengers on the train.

"We are obviously very sorry about the delays caused of people, especially the people on the train that had to go through the circumstances of being evacuated from that train. I know that's stressful. And needless to say, to the people that are injured and for the family of the woman... it's just heartrending," says Richard Sarles, Metro's General Manager.

He says smoke conditions do crop up. But this was abnormal.

"This is the first that we've had a smoke condition resulting in the type of situation we're seeing here," Sarles says.

At a briefing Monday night, NTSB investigators said there was "electrical arcing" involving the third rail and power supply cables. That, combined with pooled water near the scene of the accident may have contributed to the smoky conditions.

Sarles is scheduled to retire from Metro on Friday.

In the wake of the incident, elected officials from across the region said they were saddened by the death and would work to ensure that its cause was uncovered.

"I will stay actively engaged to ensure questions are answered, people are held accountable, and improvements are put into effect to guarantee the highest levels of safety exist within the system," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who recently took over as one of D.C.'s representatives to the Metro board.

"Today's events were a tragedy that should never happen again," he said.

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