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On anniversary of deadly Metro smoke incident, 87 passengers file lawsuits

Riders who had been trapped aboard a smoke-filled Metro train walk past a firefighter toward medical aid on Jan. 12, 2015. A year later, 87 passengers filed suit against the transit agency. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Eighty-seven passengers who were caught on a smoke-filled Metro train last January marked Tuesday’s anniversary of the fatal calamity by suing the transit agency, seeking financial compensation for physical and emotional ailments that they said have afflicted them since the ordeal.

Two personal-injury lawyers said they filed the 87 lawsuits after trying unsuccessfully to reach out-of-court monetary settlements with Metro.

On Jan. 12, 2015, an electrical malfunction on tracks near the L’Enfant Plaza station generated a mass of smoke, engulfing a six-car Yellow Line train that was stalled in a tunnel. About 250 riders waited more than 30 minutes for rescuers to arrive, officials said, and scores of them were sickened as they choked on noxious fumes.

One passenger, Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, died of respiratory failure.

Family of Metro victim Carol Glover endures a grim anniversary.

“We all thought we were going to die,” said Dennean Baker, 48, a housekeeper from Montgomery County who is among the 87 plaintiffs.

“Just talking about it brought back all the memories,” Baker said at a news conference Tuesday, her voice quivering. “Carol, when they carried her out of the train — I don’t want to think about that anymore. . . . I start to cry because of the memories of the horrible time I was on the train. I try to blank it out, but it’s hard to.”

Asked about the medical and psychological problems her clients have suffered, lawyer Kim Brooks-Rodney, standing at a lectern in the National Press Club, read from a sheet of paper. “Asthma, pneumonia, dyspnea, bronchitis, shortness of breath,” she said.

“Difficulty breathing, lung pain, chest pain,” she added. “Sore throat, COPD, sarcoidosis, obstructive sleep apnea, headaches, PTSD, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, paranoia, claustrophobia, insomnia, nightmares, forgetfulness.”

Brooks-Rodney, an assistant general counsel at Metro from 1988 to 1993, is now a partner in the firm Cohen & Cohen. She appeared at the news conference with lawyer Jerry D. Spitz, a partner in Ashcraft & Gerel. The two said they are working together on the 87 cases, which were filed Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court.

“People need to think about 45 minutes on a smoke-filled train, how long that is, how harrowing that would be,” Spitz said. “Metro’s got to do better.”

The lawsuits, which vary only slightly in their wording, do not ask for specific sums of money. “It’ll be up to the jury to decide what’s a proper amount,” Spitz said.

Another lawyer, Patrick M. Regan, of the firm Regan Zambri Long, represents Glover’s family and a dozen additional plaintiffs who also are suing Metro over the smoke incident. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is still investigating the calamity, has said it expects to issue its final report this spring.

“The NTSB is conducting an investigation to determine the cause,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said Tuesday when asked about the lawsuits. “Beyond that, we are unable to comment further on pending or active litigation.”

As for financial settlements, Spitz said Metro lowballed the plaintiffs. “We did make efforts to resolve the cases with Metro. We submitted documents to them in the hopes that they would reasonably come to the table. And the response showed that they were not ready to reasonably come to the table. Their offers were so de minimus that they spoke for themselves.”

Lawsuits started percolating within hours of the Metro smoke incident.

He and Brooks-Rodney said their clients are especially troubled by a lack of information about the chemical composition of the fumes they inhaled.

Officials have said that the electrical malfunction generated tremendous heat, causing several types of materials in the tunnel to melt, including cable insulation. The NTSB report is likely to contain specific information about the nature of the smoke.

“Over the past year, that’s probably been the hardest part to deal with, and the most frustrating, obviously,” said plaintiff Jonathan Rogers, 32, of the District, who works for the D.C. Department of Transportation. “My health is impacted by breathing the smoke.”

Rogers — who administered CPR to Glover as she was dying on the train — joined his fellow litigant Baker at Tuesday’s news conference. But their attorneys told them not to answer reporters’ queries. Instead, the two responded to a few planned questions posed by the lawyers.

“A lot of the clients went to doctors after the event,” Rogers said. “All they could really do was sort of general tests to see how we were in the moment. But without knowing anything about what we inhaled, I don’t think they could really tailor their treatment very much.”

Transit officials have cited federal rules that prohibit them from disclosing details about the incident before the NTSB investigation is completed. At the news conference, however, Brooks-Rodney excoriated the agency for its silence.

“Metro, unfortunately, a year later, has not stepped up to the plate and said to the public that it is responsible for the smoke and fire,” she said.

As a lawyer for Metro years ago, would Brooks-Rodney have advised the agency to publicly acknowledge culpability for such an incident while dozens of lawsuits were pending? To that question, she replied, “I try to tell all my clients to be forthright.”