D.C. visitors help rescue woman from Union Station Metro tracks

Chilan T. Ta, left, and Michelle Kleisath, in a photo from a New York trip, helped a woman who had fallen on tracks at Union Station.
Chilan T. Ta, left, and Michelle Kleisath, in a photo from a New York trip, helped a woman who had fallen on tracks at Union Station. (Courtesy Of Chilan T. Ta)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Help!" the disabled woman cried, her motorized wheelchair overturned a few feet away as she lay sprawled on the Metro tracks at Union Station just before midnight one day last week.

Michelle Kleisath, a 29-year-old anthropology doctoral student from Seattle, was among a crowd gathered on the platform, watching aghast. She pulled her phone from her pocket to call 911 but realized there was not enough time.

"She's going to die," Kleisath, who was in the District attending a conference on race relations, recalled thinking. "Someone has to get her off."

But thanks mainly to Kleisath and her partner, Chilan T. Ta, 26, a transportation engineering student from Seattle, disaster was averted. The couple, with help from other bystanders, rescued the woman.

The incident Jan. 13 had all the makings of another Metro tragedy.

Two weeks earlier, a blind Rockville man who tumbled from the platform of the Gallery Place-Chinatown Station was hit and killed by a Red Line train. According to Metro, at least three other riders have fallen onto tracks in the past year in what appeared to be accidents.

A man in a wheelchair rolled off a platform onto the track bed last summer at the Southern Avenue Station, injuring his head; a 22-year-old man was struck by a train and killed at the East Falls Church Station in March; and a woman was rescued from the Gallery Place tracks, escaping with minor injuries, during the presidential inauguration in January 2009.

A Metro spokeswoman confirmed that a woman fell onto the tracks last week, but the transit agency would not identify her. "We don't give out the names of customers," Lisa Farbstein said.

In a telephone interview Wednesday from their home in Seattle, Kleisath and Ta described the incident.

Ta ran up the stairs to the mezzanine to alert the station manager. "My thought was, if the train driver knows they should not arrive at the station, it would give the people more time," she said.

Meanwhile, swallowing her fear, Kleisath climbed down onto the tracks and started moving toward the woman, who was near the tunnel exit on the side headed for Shady Grove. As soon as she did, another wave of panic broke out among the onlookers.

"The electric rail!" a man yelled at her.

"They are both on the tracks! There are two on the tracks!" a woman screamed.

"That's not helpful," Kleisath recalled thinking. "I was already really terrified."

Kleisath, a bicyclist, said that when she reached the woman, she realized she would be unable to lift her alone. She looked up to the platform, spotted a tall man in a dark jacket, and realized he was the panhandler she had just given a dollar to after he had complained about rising Metro fares.

"Please, come down and help me," she called. The man immediately jumped down. Another man followed, and a third. Together, they lifted the injured woman onto the platform.

Kleisath was trying to comfort the woman, who was bleeding profusely from her nose and mouth and was unable to use her arms and legs, when suddenly the woman said: "Get my chair!"

"I thought if we didn't get the chair, the people on the Metro might die, so me and the man I gave the dollar to went back and got the chair," Kleisath said.

By then, the station manager was on the emergency phone talking with the operations center, and Metro police officers had arrived. Paramedics were on the way to take the woman to a hospital.

"Apparently, she told personnel that her wheelchair malfunctioned," said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel, who confirmed the incident Wednesday. The station manager alerted the Metro operations center to cut power to the third rail, and the center stopped the driver of a train bound for Shady Grove.

Kleisath stayed with the woman, keeping her hand on her shoulder. A pool of blood was forming under the woman's face, so Kleisath helped her blow her nose. She pulled down the woman's sweater to cover her exposed stomach, put her loose wallet in her purse and placed a shoe that had fallen off into her shopping bag.

The last train of the night pulled into the station. The operator looked out from his cab at the scene.

Kleisath and Ta got on the train and rode away.

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