Jeffrey Todd was on his way home from work to meet his wife and family for dinner Monday evening.
Just a little after 3 p.m., he sent his wife a text.
“I’m at L’Enfant. Train is ARR, I’ll be there in 14 minutes. GRR, now arriving in 3. See you in 17.”
Instead, it would be more than an hour before Todd, 43, who is in the Navy and lives in Alexandria, would be reunited with his wife. Unlike others who waited for emergency personnel to rescue them from a train trapped for more than 30 minutes in a smoke-filled tunnel just outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, Todd and at least one other man left the train in search of a way out.
It’s a practice that Metro officials strongly discourage. Some officials have suggested that self-evacuation may have hampered Monday’s rescue efforts. But four days later, reflecting on the incident where one woman died and more than 83 people were hospitalized, Todd said it was a smart decision given the circumstances he and riders faced.
“I did not think we were going to die, but I did believe and stated, that there was a chance we would die if we remained in the train,” he said.
Todd estimates it was roughly 3:14 p.m. when he hopped aboard the fourth car on the Yellow Line train. The doors shut and the train headed south. A minute later, Todd said, he heard a loud “pop.” Then the train went dark.
At first, passengers weren’t at all fazed. He remembered chuckling when one woman said she was going to take a picture of herself on the darkened train and use it to explain to her boss why she was late getting back to the office.
The train operator told passengers the plan was to back up the train so they could exit onto the platform at L’Enfant Plaza. But a few minutes later, the operator made his way back through the car. People began to worry.
“The next 10 minutes included moments where I wanted to just sit on the ground, and moments I couldn’t JUST sit on the ground,” he wrote in an e-mail. Todd said he asked others if they thought they should leave the train. Most said no.
“Don’t pull the handle,” they told him.
Another passenger suggested they wait three minutes. If things got worse, then they would go.
Minutes ticked by and Todd decided he could no longer wait.
“I pulled the emergency lever of my Metro car,” he said. “Some passengers called from the ground, telling me that the train would now be unable to go. . . . Was this the right choice?”
Using his iPhone as a flashlight, Todd and another man made their way along a ledge through the dark tunnel. He noted that the smoke was thicker in the rail car than it was in the tunnel. He crouched at the waist to get below the smoke line. Roughly 50 yards later, “I stood up and walked normally. The smoke had diminished rapidly.”
Eventually, the pair made their way to a set of stairs that led to a staircase that led them to a closed metal grate. There they saw firefighters and police officers looking down at them.
“We climbed the final stairs and they asked us to open the grates, which we did via levers on the underside,” he said.
At 4:02 p.m., in response to a flurry of texts that exploded from his phone once he reached the surface, he texted his wife a picture of himself. The caption? “Sooty.”
In recounting the day, Todd said, “Whether an eternity or 35 minutes, the wait in a smoke-filled train was too long and changes to our Metro’s safety procedures are desperately needed.”