Harold Ingram had been on the job as a Metro contractor for less than a month when he was assigned over the weekend to a team ripping out old rail and replacing it with new along Metro’s busy Red Line — a tedious but fairly routine job.

Early Sunday, something went wrong and Ingram, 41, was killed after he was struck by a 40-foot-long, 1-ton piece of iron rail in a tunnel near Union Station. Two Metro workers were injured, and one of them remained hospitalized Monday.

Metro officials are investigating the incident and trying to determine what happened, but the agency said Sunday that preliminary reports suggest the accident that killed Ingram was triggered by a fire and explosion in the tunnel.

Interviews with four people — one of whom was present at the time of the accident — indicate that the chain-reaction incident happened quickly. The people described what they knew based on interviews with those who were involved, confidential memos and briefings. They asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the incident.

Shortly after midnight, in a tunnel that runs between Union Station and Judiciary Square, flames erupted and a “loud noise” boomed near a piece of equipment on the tracks, according to Metro. Some people on the tracks said it sounded like an explosion. The incident occurred about 400 feet from the Union Station platform.

Fatal accident delays repairs on red line

Metro officials said Sunday they thought that leaking hydraulic fluid from an underground vehicle apparently was ignited by welding equipment, causing the fire and explosion. Later, in a statement posted on the agency’s Web site, officials said “the root cause of the fire/noise has not yet been determined. It is not yet known if there was a fluid leak or another mechanical issue.”

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel declined Monday to answer questions about details of the accident, because it was “an active investigation.”

As it was recounted to The Washington Post, a crew in the tunnel was using a piece of heavy machinery known as a “flash-butt welder” to join two pieces of rail. The welder looks like a horseshoe and stretches from one side of the rail to the other and secures new rail on the track.

The welding creates a lot of heat and sparks, which reportedly ignited leaking hydraulic fluid.

“Nobody had noticed that hydraulic fluid was leaking from this piece of equipment,” one Metro worker said.

And there was another problem.

The fluid had apparently left a trail along the tracks, according to one account, and the fire quickly followed the path. Ingram and one of the Metro workers were standing in the track bed, helping to guide and lay the piece of rail.

A crane on the tracks, near where Ingram and another worker stood, was holding a 40-foot piece of rail. Something caused the rail to swing, striking the two men. According to Metro officials, a third worker was also struck by the piece of rail.

The Metro worker in the track bed started to “jump out of the way” as he saw the rail coming toward him, said one of the people interviewed. But Ingram “looked up just as it came at his face.”

When the piece of rail came down, it broke the Metro worker’s leg.

“It all happened in a split second,” the people said.

Ingram was taken to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. The names of the two injured Metro workers were not released.

“They were very shaken up,” said one of the people interviewed. “They’re very rattled. They keep trying to replay it and figure out what went wrong.”

Established routine

During his three weeks as a Metro contractor, Ingram had developed a routine, friends and family said.

He lived in Blackstone, Va., with his mother during the week and came to the Washington area on the weekends for his job as a welder-helper.

Ingram worked for the Holland Co., a Crete, Ill., firm that is under contract to do welding services for Metro. Holland does rail welding, track maintenance and other work on railroads.

Company President Jordan Wolf said Monday, “I wish not to comment until more information is available and more details are known.”

Ingram was born and raised in Blackstone, about 50 miles south of Richmond — population nearly 4,000. His friends and family in the Blackstone area called him mostly by his middle name, Conell.

In high school, he played baseball, football and basketball and coached local teams later in life. Ingram served more than 20 years in the Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq. He was active in the Virginia National Guard at Fort Pickett in Blackstone.

He served as captain of his Guard unit’s basketball team, according to friends and relatives. In the military, he worked as a mechanic and human resources specialist and was deployed to Iraq from March 2004 to February 2005. At one point, his friends and family said, he worked as a corrections officer in Blackstone. His grandmother, Thelma Ingram Staten, said he had five children.

“He was always trying to help people get jobs in the military,” said Ronald Lee Frisby, who went to Nottoway High School with Ingram. “He was like, ‘Man, the military might be your best option.’ He helped a lot of people.”

Ingram had started his job with Holland on Sept. 18, according to the company.

His home town was shocked by his death. His brother, Tremaine Gray, declined to comment.

“It’s really tearing this small town apart,” said William Clarke, 63, a close family friend who had known Ingram since he was a child. “Everybody knew Conell. Everybody is mourning.”

“He was just a good guy — dedicated, hard worker, honest,” he said. “It is really ripping me apart.”

Safety agencies

Watchdog agencies said they are monitoring Metro’s investigation of the incident.

The National Transportation Safety Board maintained that it would not be sending investigators to the scene because of the federal government furlough. The agency said it could only “engage in those activities necessary to address imminent threats to the safety of human life or for the protection of property.”

NTSB officials said the Metro accident did not meet its criteria for exempting staff members from furloughs.

“Our public affairs team is furloughed due to the lapse in funding,” Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman wrote in an e-mail Monday. “Therefore, we are not providing updates or information to the media.”

The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which is charged to serve as a watchdog group over Metro, said it was “monitoring Metro’s investigation” of the accident. Metro is required to send a preliminary report to the oversight committee within three days of an incident and then has 30 days to submit a final report.

“Any time an accident happens we are concerned,” said Klara Baryshev, the new chairwoman of the oversight committee. “We are looking at all the details. We will look at the probable causes and make recommendations to make sure we don’t get into the same type of incident again.”

Paul Duggan contributed to this report.