"I thought for a minute that the train was going to crash like the runaway locomotive in the movie, 'Silver Streak,'" Frances Stevenson said yesterday.
"When we went through the first Metro stop and the doors didn't open, I thought the operator had just made a mistake," said Deborah Piper. "But when we pulled into two more stations and the doors remained shut, I thought we'd been hijacked."
The fact was that Metro train 103-1068, scheduled for a routine run along the Red Line from Silver Spring to Dupont Circle, did not have a driver. He had stepped out of his cab after his train had cleared the Rhode Island station to visually check out another train.
He stood by helplessly on the tracks, seconds after he had descended from his cab, and watched his own train pull away without him. A woman passenger with a hair clasp finally forced her way into the operator's cab and stopped the train several stations later.
Cody Pfanstiehl, a Metro spokesman, said that the train was under "complete automatic control" at all times and that no passenger ever was in danger.
"At every second, the train was doing what it was supposed to do," said Pfanstiehl. "The only problem was that there was no human being at the controls to open the doors."
Pfanstiehl said that if the passenger, V. Kilena Loveless, 25, had not stopped the train at Metro Center, the train would have continued to the end of the line and parked on a side track at Dupont Circle.
The operator, whose name was not released, was suspended and the incident is under investigation, according to Pfanstiehl. Controls on the train that could have immobilized it when the operator got off apparently were not used, Pfanstiehl said.
The 15-minute driverless ride ended when Loveless, a passenger in the first car, used a barrett to jiggle open the operator's control booth. Once inside, she pressed an "automatic stop" button that brought the train to a halt at Metro Center.
"We were about halfway between the Rhode Island station and Union Station when I heard someone tell the operator over his radio to stop and check something," said Loveless, a Greenbelt resident and privately employed accountant who was seated near the operator's booth.
"He stopped the train and got out," she said. "Then the train started to move. There was a really funny expression on the operator's face when he looked up and saw the train pulling away." Loveless could see him through a window in the passenger section.
"When the train pulled into Union Station, I didn't get too excited," Loveless said."I thought the computers would correct the problem and we'd be able to get out at the next stop."
But at the next stop -- Judiciary Square -- Loveless said the train stopped again and the doors did not open. When the train did not release passengers at Gallery Place, Loveless said she began to ask other passengers if they had a nail file or some other instrument that could be used to pry open the lock on the control booth. Nobody did, and she finally used her hair clasp.
At the time of the incident, the train had just gone into service on the Silver Spring-Dupont Circle route, and was carrying about 100 passengers. It is normally parked overnight near the Rhode Island Avenue station in the principal Metro train yard.
Piper, who was a passenger in the third car, said she began to feel a sense of panic when the train did not release passengers at Union Station.
"I was trying to suppress my nervous feelings and I got the idea that the other passengers were beginning to worry, too," Piper said.
"One man who had missed his stop walked up to the front car," Piper recalled. "He came back a few minutes later shouting, 'We have a problem. We don't have a driver.'"
"Then we became very concerned about whether we would be able to get off the train at Metro Center," Piper said. "People were thinking of Metro Center as a point of no return, as if we'd never be able to get off if we didn't get off then."
As the train pulled away from Gallery Place, Loveless began jimmying the lock on the control booth.
"She played with the lock for a few seconds and it opened," said Mary Salor, another passenger in the first car. "We walked into the booth and tried to figure out how to work the controls.
"We could hear central control attempting to reach the operator over the radio, but we couldn't talk back because we didn't know how to work the radio."
Then Loveless said she saw a red button that read, "Auto Stop." She quickly pressed the button and the train, which was entering Metro Center, slowed to a stop. Loveless pressed another button -- "open doors" -- and she said the passenger doors opened and passengers quickly left the train.
Loveless said she held the "stop" button depressed tightly until a station attendant took charge of the train.