An electrical fire in a downtown Metro tunnel stranded frightened passengers in a smoke-filled train, forced the evacuation of two stations and virtually shut down the evening rush hour above and below ground yesterday.
The 250 stranded commuters endured a harrowing two-hour wait when their Virginia-bound Blue Line train got stuck between the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom stations, and one passenger with a history of cardiac problems suffered a heart attack.
"There was smoke everywhere," said Derek Lee, a 14-year-old tourist from Peoria, Ill., who was trapped with his family on the train. "And then I had to put water on some clothes and breathe through the clothes because of all the smoke."
Stuck inside the train for two hours, many said they feared for their lives, and they complained about how much time it took for rescuers to get them out. Some told jokes or passed around e-mail addresses to pass the time until firefighters led them from the train by 7:25 p.m.
Thirteen people were treated for smoke inhalation at George Washington University Hospital and released; the heart patient was held for observation last night, said spokeswoman Amy Pianalto.
Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said a fire damaged a cable that supplies power to the third rail in one of the system's busiest tunnels minutes before 5 p.m. The cause of the fire wasn't known.
By 9 p.m., service had resumed, but trains and platforms remained crowded. Metro said service would be normal this morning.
"This is a significant incident for us, but by itself it is not an extraordinary incident," Johnson said. "Our frustration was that it was unacceptably long."
Fire officials said the delays were necessary because firefighters first had to make sure the power was shut down, confirm that the air in the tunnel was safe for evacuation and then figure out the safest way to get the passengers out of the train and into a station.
"It took a long time on purpose," D.C. fire Capt. Brian K. Lee said. "We have to investigate the scene and make it safe because the smoke could be toxic and the gases could be deadly."
Dwight Foster, deputy director of the railroad safety office at the National Transportation Safety Board, said the board was conducting a preliminary review of the Metro fire to see if the safety concerns raised merited a full-fledged NTSB investigation.
Several trains were in the area when the fire erupted.
Ray Plowden, a District resident who was waiting in the Foggy Bottom-GWU station to catch a train on his way to work at a D.C. foster-care center, was looking down the tunnel when he saw a bright orange flash. Flames, then smoke, rolled into the station, he said.
Letty Valdes, a 33-year-old Fairfax resident who was riding in the next-to-last car of a train that made it into the Foggy Bottom station, said, "All of a sudden, the train got full of smoke." She said she pressed her coat to her face to block the smoke as other passengers started to cough and press emergency buttons.
Kathy Leone, who saw sparks streaming down the right side of her train as she headed toward her home in Falls Church, said about half the passengers remained on board at Foggy Bottom, and waited for the train to proceed even as it filled with smoke.
Aboard the stranded train, many people became scared, some grew panicky. Others kept calm by talking or telling jokes. Michael Dugger, a cool-headed teacher at a District charter school, earned the gratitude of dozens of passengers by taking charge. By the time everyone was getting off, Dugger was getting high-fives from fellow passengers.
The Lees, who had awakened on Sunday morning to massive protests in the capital, did what they could to make the time pass. Devin Lee, 10, exchanged e-mail addresses with other passengers.
Five minutes after getting the call, firefighters arrived at the stranded train and doused the flames immediately. But they held the passengers on board because of the heavy, acrid smoke and the uncertainty of its source.
Rosemary Coskey, 56, a federal worker, was heading home to the Rosslyn Metro station, where she meets her husband every day, when the Blue Line train stopped in the tunnel and began to fill with smoke.
"We decided we had to go to the front car where the driver was," Coskey said. "You could just barely see through the front of the train--brightness. The smoke started coming in the car. Kids were crying. The driver came out. She was worried."
Coskey covered her mouth with a tissue.
"When the smoke started building up, I thought, 'Oh, gosh, is this the way it's going to end?' "
Dan Carroll, 39, and his son, Zach, 15, of Muncie, Ind., who were riding a subway train for the first time yesterday, covered their faces with their shirts as the smoke got so thick they could not see the end of the car.
"The air was thick, hot," Carroll said.
Rescuers boarded the train, and opened the side doors, but smoke poured in, and they were quickly closed again, Carroll said. Shortly before 7:30 p.m., the rescuers took them forward and brought them out single file onto the tracks. Firefighters held flashlights to guide them into the station, 400 feet away.
Above ground, disruptions began to spread far from the epicenter within minutes of the fire. Police and emergency vehicles swarmed around Metro stops, while crowds boiled up onto the street, lining up at pay phones or dialing relatives on cell phones, waiting for Metro buses or looking for a taxi to hail. Service on the Blue and Orange lines continued to operate from the west as far as Rosslyn and from the east as far as McPherson Square.
Train passengers were bused between the Rosslyn and Metro Center stations. But those buses were also forced to detour around the area of 17th Street.
"What can you do? You just deal with it," shrugged Leslie McIlwain, whose trip to Arlington was interrupted.
District firefighters closed 17th Street between H and K streets shortly after 5 p.m., forcing traffic to detour around the heavily traveled area. The tie-ups in the city were so severe that they backed up traffic on eastbound Interstate 66 from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge back to Route 7 in Fairfax County.
Ed Bowers, operations supervisor for the SmarTraveler traffic information service, said the Metro fire had a "horrible impact" on an evening rush hour that already was heavier than usual because many people were departing work early for a long Easter holiday weekend.
"The whole Northwest sector of the city is in turmoil," Bowers said. "On the surface, they've had to close streets to deal with the fire below."
At McPherson Square, hundreds of people jammed the corner at Vermont Avenue and I street as commuter trains dumped new loads of stranded commuters at the station. People milled around calling family members on cell phones to tell them to hold dinner, or not hold dinner, as the case might be.
While many commuters took the episode in stride, others whose trains got hung up criticized Metro officials for failing to keep them informed.
Joy Crook, 26, of Ballston, who works at Children's Hospital as a research assistant, said she was stuck at least 20 minutes on an Orange Line train between McPherson Square and Metro Center.
After pulling into McPherson Square, they were told to leave the train and board another one, but that train, too, remained stuck for 10 minutes.
"It's probably smart they didn't tell us there was a fire in the tunnel," said Curt Gaucher, of Vienna, who was aboard the same Orange Line train. "It could have been done better, much better. It didn't seem like anyone knew what was going on."
Contributing to this report were Petula Dvorak, Darryl Fears, Steve Fehr, Spencer Hsu, Stacey Palosky, Alice Reid, Liz Seymour and Alan Sipress.
A fire in a metro tunnel between the Foggy Bottom and Farragut West stations filled the tunnel with smoke and halted the evening commute yesterday. At least 14 people were treated at local hospitals, including one man who had a heart attack. Metro officials believe the electrical fire started in the cable that supplies power to the "third rail."