Saleh Damiger and a friend left work at Voice of America and arrived at Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station shortly after 3 p.m. Monday, just in time to catch a Virginia-bound Yellow Line train.
They were chatting as the train pulled away from the station, and suddenly came to a halt. Damiger said the stop seemed like a typical delay, and he was so unconcerned that he continued his conversation.
A disaster was already underway, but no one seemed to realize it.
A day after the tragedy on the Metro in which one person died and scores of others were hospitalized, more details of passenger ordeals emerged.
Damiger, for one, painted a terrifying picture of a slowly developing crisis that went from calm to panic. Others told of stricken fellow passengers coughing, vomiting, passing out and praying.
In Damiger’s case, it wasn’t long into his train’s stop before he realized something amiss.
“I said to my friend, ‘Look at that smoke,’ ” Damiger said. “I thought it was from the brakes.”
The smoke seemed to come in from “nowhere,” as Damiger put it. It was thick and smelled of burning brakes, plastic and oil and began to stream into the car. Damiger said some elderly riders immediately had trouble breathing, but most riders remained composed.
After two or three minutes, he said the train’s conductor began walking from car to car to reassure riders — the first of two or three passes the man would make through the train as the incident gradually unfolded.
The conductor told riders to remain calm. “There is no fire,” Damiger recalled the man saying. “Don’t try to open the door. I will call for help and they will get us back to L’Enfant Plaza.”
Damiger said smoke continued to billow into the car. After 15 or 20 minutes, riders became anxious. He said some wanted to smash the doors of the train to escape, but the conductor said to wait for help to arrive.
At the 30-minute mark, Damiger said anxiety turned to panic. Damiger said one man sputtered for breath on his knees. He had a cloth pressed to his mouth and a hand buttressed on the floor of the car for support. Other passengers appeared to have passed out. Many sunk to the floor of the train to gulp in whatever fresh air was still left.
Then, the screaming started.
“Open the door for us!”
“We need to get out!”
“We are dying!”
“Tell us something!”
“Make an announcement!”
“Stop telling us to calm down!”
At some point, Damiger said he happened upon a woman who started praying to calm a teenage girl in the seat next to her who had started crying.
“Lord, we are sure you don’t want us to die here,” Damiger recalled the woman saying. “Lord, please help us. Lord, we don’t want to die here.”
Damiger said the woman said, “amen,” and several others riders responded with their own “amens.”
Damiger said help finally arrived after the train was stranded for about 45 minutes.
He and other riders filed through the rail cars to reach the back of the train. He said he saw two or three people carrying a passenger, who appeared to be having seizures. He said emergency crews had opened a back and side door of the last car. Riders with disabilities were evacuated through the rear door, while other passengers hopped out the side door.
Damiger said the passengers inched along a narrow path between the wall of the tunnel and the Metro train, guided by firefighters with flashlights. He said he was shocked when it took just a couple of minutes to walk back to the L’Enfant Plaza station. He estimated it was roughly 200 feet away.
“When we went out to the platform and I realized we were so close. I didn’t know why the officer told us not to move from the train,” Damiger said. “It was a can of chaos. Nobody knew what to do.”
Passenger Jonathan Rogers recalled: “It started to get scary pretty quick.”
He said the train operator told them of a plan to get back to the platform of the L’Enfant Plaza station, but that effort apparently failed.
He said a man standing next to him started having breathing problems and sank to the floor. Other passengers who grew short of breath passed around inhalers. They also shared water bottles.
Rogers said that when a woman beside him passed out, he joined other riders in trying to revive her with CPR.
“We just kept doing it, maybe 25 minutes,” he said.
It was not clear Tuesday if that was the woman who died.
Andrew Litwin, 21, a University of Texas junior who was visiting relatives in Alexandria, was on his way back from a day of touring Washington when his Metro train stopped and half the lights went out after leaving L’Enfant Plaza.
Litwin, who lives in Minneapolis and suffers from mild asthma, was in the last car of the car train.
“The conductor immediately told us, “Oh, this is a hold right now. Not sure how long it will last. Please remain calm.’”
People were alarmed to see the lights go out, he said, although some lights around the doors remained on.
“People noticed it was a little hazy outside,” he said. “We could hear people shouting from (the cars) in front of us. . .that there was smoke. We were a little bit panicked at first.”
The train conductor walked back through the cars to the controls in the last car, and announced that he would drive the train back to the station once he got the proper signal.
He noted that there was smoke in the tunnel but said there was no fire. “He asked everyone to remain calm and keep away from the doors,” Litwin recalled. Smoke began filtering into the car.
Some passengers shouted at the conductor, saying, “please, sir, move the train, people are going to die here,” Litwin said. “Some people were irate, but as the time passed people realized they had to focus and breathe,” he said.
People were trying to breathe through scarves, hats and shirts.
“This would be a terrible way to die,” Litwin said he thought, as he said a few prayers.
“The...group of people around me were very calm,” he said. About five minutes before firefighters reached the car, he said, some passengers were talking about opening the doors and walking back to the station.
“People were ready to go,” he said. “People weren’t going to chance staying on that train too much longer.”
The conductor cautioned people not to go outside, saying that there was zero visibility and the danger of touching an electrified rail.
About 20 minutes into the wait, he said, the smoke stopped seeping into the car but still was lingering.
“There was a lot of people coughing,” he said. “There was a lady, who right when the fire department came in to open things up, she began vomiting.”
“Some people were yelling, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’”he said. But most people tried to remain cool.
Eventually, firefighters with flashlights opened the doors and helped people out of the car. Litwin said a pregnant woman went first, and there was no pushing as they walked single-file back to the station. The air cleared as they walked away from the train.
He said the entire incident lasted about 45 minutes, because he checked the time when the train stopped, at 3:15 p.m., and when he got to the surface at 4 p.m.
Jason Hill hopped on the Metro near his Temple Hills home Monday afternoon to go shopping in Pentagon City. He said when he got to L’Enfant Plaza, he transferred to a Yellow Line train headed to Virginia. The ride lasted just seconds.
Hill said the train got a few hundred feet into the tunnel when the train ground to a halt.
“It just shut off completely,” Hill said.
The lights went out and the intercom fell silent briefly, before the power flickered back on. Hill said it sounded like the driver was trying to “start” the train again, but it wasn’t working. It lurched forward once, but never got going.
He said at that point smoke began filtering into the train. He said the conductor announced on the intercom that help was coming and they were going to get the train back to the platform at L’Enfant. He said the conductor told passengers another train had to be moved.
The conductor also made his way through the train to reassure passengers.
Ten minutes passed. Then 20.
“It kept building,” Hill said of the smoke.
Smith said he grew dizzy at one point and sat on the floor of the car. After a few minutes, he got up and began jogging to get his blood flowing. He used his cellphone to call authorities. He said he tried to calm fellow passengers who were growing anxious, including one woman who had asthma.
“I kept calling dispatch and telling them we need all the help we can get in the tunnel,” Hill said. “It seemed like everything was taking too long.”
Hill said the dispatcher repeatedly told him someone was on the way, but they had to get the train off the tracks behind them.
Hill said it took “well over 30 minutes” and possibly as long as an hour for rescue crews to arrive. He said they got there just in time. He said many people were having trouble breathing at that point and he felt more would have died in the coming minutes.
He and other riders filed out the door of their car, guided by firefighters and made their way back to the platform at L’Enfant Plaza.