By the time I entered the station at Crystal City, the bus transfer I punched read 3:22 p.m. The train arrived shortly thereafter. For some inexplicable reason, I boarded the lead car -- something I almost never do. On the rare occasions I ride Metrorail, I board one of the central cars, since the quickest access to the exit stairs at New Carrollton is via the third or fourth car.
The ride was event-free until we reached Arlington Cemetery. At that point, the driver announced a brief delay, due to "problems" at Foggy Bottom, and that we would move in "a few moments." The "few moments" stretched, until we had been standing for 20 or 30 minutes. Finally, we rolled on to Rosslyn, where the train filled to capacity. People were literally standing shoulder to shoulder, front to back. By the time we reached Federal Triangle, I had been on the train for about 45 minutes.
As we began to slow before entering the Smithsonian station, the lead car surprisingly turned at a switchpoint and entered the track used by trains bound for National Airport. Though official accounts do not so state, the feeling among many of the passengers was that the lead car of the train left the tracks at that point. It bounced and shuddered, then came to a stop. The lights went out. A couple of women screamed. Men cursed. A few people mumbled reservations about riding the system again. After a few minutes, the train reversed direction and slowly began to pull our car back into the original tunnel.
It was immediately obvious that something was very wrong. The same bucking motion occurred, with a loud popping and crunching sound and a sudden showering of sparks and electrical arcing. This time, dozens of people of both sexes screamed. Slowly, surrealistically, the concrete abutment grew larger, closer and actually pressed the left centerrear of the car. The side and roof slowly caved in, almost as a foot crushes a tin can. More screaming, arcing, then silence.
A few moans could be heard, then anonymous calls in the dark, "Is everyone all right?" With the darkness, smoke and dust, it was virtually impossible to see the back of the car from the front. The acrid smell of electrical short-circuiting crept into the air. More voices called out: "Some people are badly hurt back here -- where the hell is the driver?" "Everyone keep calm, sit tight, help is on the way. It has to be." "Bast open a window so we can breathe in here!"
Finally, a resourceful person bashed open one of the windows on the center-left door. He was at once thanked and berated. It was evident that the crowd was divided among those who were emotionally overwrought and panicky, those who felt they should take some action to help those around them, those who urged standing still and waiting for help, and others who were torn in what they should do. The people who remained fairly calm, about three-quarters of those in the car, kept the peace. Though there were threats of a stampede, it never occurred. One man cried out something like, "Damone, Damone, I can't stand it. Get it off! Get it off!" Then his voiced trailed off.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was, in reality, something over half on hour, a Metro employee shouted into the car that the doors were to be pried open and that the passengers would be able to exit shortly. We were exhorted to do so slowly, calmly and carefully.
It was only then that many of us at the far front fully realized the profound damage the car had suffered. While it has been rumored that the injured and dead had been trampled, such was not the case. Those passengers were hurt by the collapse of the car, combined with the impossibility of escape due to its crowded condition. On the whole, the mood of the car had been, from what I witnessed, much more responsible and rational than I would ever have expected.
Walking back through the tunnel to Federal Triangle station, many of the passengers got their first sight of the injured and the exterior damage. Emergency lights and the haze bathed the scene in a nightmarish aura. The car was twisted around the abutment. One woman was seen pressed flat against the glass by the collapsed roof and sides.
My first thought was to call my wife. When she answered the phone and I poured out my experience, she explained that the radio had announced a derailment with "no injuries." She added that news of a plane crash preempted almost all other news. I agreed that a plane crash was a terrible thing, but mumbled that the Metro accident was worse than reported and, what's more, was local. She gasped and was silent for a second. I then was to hear for the first time what had happened on the 14th Street Bridge.