A timeline of the emergency response to Monday’s Metro tragedy that left one woman dead and scores of passengers injured corroborates riders’ accounts that they waited at least 35 minutes trapped in a dark, smoky tunnel before firefighters began to rescue them.
The timeline, obtained by The Washington Post from three District officials with access to dispatch records, shows that after firefighters arrived on the L’Enfant Plaza underground platform shortly after 3:30 p.m., they had to wait 13 minutes before moving into the tunnel and toward the train because they needed assurance from Metro that power to the electrified third rail had been cut.
According to the timeline, the first rescues started soon after firefighters received permission to move into the tunnel, at 3:44 p.m., and after they walked single-file down 800 feet of track, in the dark and smoke, to reach the first of six cars on the train. By then it was nearly 4 p.m.
The sequence helps clarify how the District reacted to the emergency amid complaints from passengers that they were trapped for what seemed an interminable amount of time.
Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, died after being carried from the train, and 83 other passengers were taken to area hospitals, two in critical condition.
Metro and District officials have declined to comment publicly on specifics of the event, citing the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. But authorities are compiling a timeline for the federal agency, which is reconstructing the response and rescue, along with trying to determine the cause of the incident.
District fire officials got their first hint of trouble at 3:18 p.m., when a construction worker called 911 to report smoke coming from a street vent at Ninth and Water streets SW, about a half-mile south of the L’Enfant Plaza station, near where the train emerges from underground. At 3:22 p.m., according to the timeline, Metro told the fire department there was smoke in the station and, two minutes later, elevated that to “heavy smoke, passengers having trouble breathing.” It’s unclear how Metro knew that riders were in distress.
At 3:28 p.m., the fire department declared a “Metro tunnel box alarm,” which means a possible fire in a tunnel and triggers the response of five engines, two trucks, a medic and an ambulance. The first firefighters arrived at L’Enfant Plaza station near Seventh and D streets SW at 3:31 p.m. By then, 911 operators had been flooded with calls, and firefighters rushing toward the station were met with hundreds of fleeing passengers, many coughing and needing help. The first call from a passenger on the train to 911 came at 3:33 p.m., saying it was filling with smoke.
At 3:44 p.m., Metro alerted firefighters that electricity to the third rail had been shut off and it was safe to enter the tunnel. Two more passengers called 911 asking whether help was on the way and the fire department struck a second alarm, drawing more personnel.
One official briefed on the timeline said the next news came at 4 p.m., when a paramedic reported being with a patient.
D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who is chairman of the committee with oversight of fire, police and the city’s emergency dispatch systems, said the details now unfolding, combined with the accounts of passengers about how long it took firefighters to respond show how many questions remain.
“There are a lot of riders of Metro who are deeply concerned about what they don’t know occurred,” McDuffie said. “They have questions, and I have questions. . . . There has to be transparency in this process.”
A mayoral official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said a fuller timeline is being constructed but that it would not be done for several days. First responders to the train will be interviewed later this week, the official said. Their accounts will be needed to better understand what the official described as sometimes confusing “chatter” in radio transmissions from the scene. The official said a transcript of that radio communication was being vetted Wednesday.
Authorities said earlier this week that they believe they know why the train, which had just left L’Enfant Plaza station, came to a halt about 800 feet into the tunnel. The NTSB said “an electrical arcing event” occurred about 1,100 feet in front of the train. The event filled the tunnel with smoke.
A precise cause has not been determined. The passenger fatality was Metro’s first since the deadly Red Line crash in 2009 that killed eight passengers and the train operator.
Authorities have declined to discuss what happened between the time the first firefighters arrived at L’Enfant Plaza at 3:31 p.m. and when they reached the passengers, and whether there was a delay in firefighters going into the tunnel. There also are questions of whether the exhaust fans were working to vent the tunnel of smoke.
Fire union officials have also said some firefighters had trouble using new radios in the tunnel and on the train, though the problem might also be with Metro “repeater” systems that are used to help transmit radio calls. Two District officials said transmission from firefighters in the tunnel to the street was not working. The spotty transmissions meant that some firefighters moved from the tunnel closer to the platform.
Edward C. Smith, president of the D.C. firefighters union, said the timeline shows what he considers a fast response. Even after the first firefighters arrived at 3:31 p.m., it took several more minutes for the others to arrive, collect gear and go down to the platform.
Before going into the tunnel, power to the third rail must be shut off, which can be done with switches positioned every 800 feet. Firefighters have to confirm the shut-off in fact worked by calling Metro’s command center, and confirm it again with a device that detects current. The department’s chief has said there was a delay because firefighters heard trains rumbling on other tracks and initially weren’t sure power had been cut.
Metro has not said why the train didn’t move from where it was stopped. It is not known whether it was out of power or whether the operator stopped it when he saw smoke. Several passengers have said the operator told them that he wanted to back into the station but that the request was denied, possibly because another train was at the station and in the way. One passenger quoted the operator saying the train was “disabled.”
Two riders, Jay Vatassery and his wife, Anu Nookala, who live in Minnesota, were on the second of the six cars when the train suddenly stopped and, within a minute or so, the cars began to fill with smoke, Vatassery said.
During that time, as passengers became increasingly agitated and distressed, Vatassery said, the train operator told riders that he was “trying to get the train back to the station.” The train lurched a few times, as if the driver was having trouble getting it to move, Vatassery said. He said he then heard the driver talking by radio with someone else in the Metro system. The driver, in a “pretty frantic” voice, was asking for help getting the train to move or for rescuers to come and take the passengers off the train.
Vatassery said passengers at the front of the train began moving to cars closer to the rear, where the air was less smoky.
When Vatassery stepped out of the car, being led by firefighters back to the station, he said, he noticed the air was much clearer outside the car, even in the tunnel.
The first indication for the stranded passengers that help was close came from a passenger on the last of six rail cars — the first one firefighters reached — who texted at 3:48 p.m., “Firemen here.”
Lori Aratani, Paul Duggan, Paulina Firozi, Mary Pat Flaherty, Michael E. Ruane and Robert Thomson contributed to this report.
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