WASHINGTON (AP) – Passengers were still pleading for a rescue 27 minutes after smoke filled their subway cars under the nation’s capital, as communications breakdowns between the train’s operator, his command center and firefighters left help waiting at a station just 800 feet away, a preliminary official timeline suggested Thursday.
First responders were at the scene but couldn’t safely leave the Metro platform because they couldn’t get a clear answer on whether someone could be electrocuted by the third rail that powers the trains, authorities said.
One woman died and more than 80 were sickened Monday when some sort of electrical malfunction on the tracks stopped the train as it traveled toward Virginia, shortly after it left the busy L’Enfant Plaza station in downtown Washington.
Carol Glover of Alexandria, Virginia, succumbed to acute respiratory failure due to smoke exposure, according to Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Her death was ruled accidental, Fields said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and Metro officials have declined to comment, leaving the city and passengers to fill in what details are publicly known.
The city’s preliminary timeline confirmed that passengers waited more than a half-hour for help, and that more than an hour passed before an ambulance began carrying the dying woman to a hospital. It shows firefighters waited at the station for 13 minutes before Metro officials confirmed people were trapped and that the electrified third rail had been shut down, reducing the risk of an orderly evacuation.
Passengers, meanwhile, said the train’s operator told them every three or four minutes to stay put, that the problems were temporary and that the train would be moving back into the station, but aside from several lurches, it didn’t move much at all.
“Those people should not have been trapped like rats in a subway car filling with smoke,” said attorney Kim Brooks-Rodney, announcing a lawsuit that will accuse the Metro transit agency of negligent maintenance, inspection and response.
“Something broke down and we’re going to find out what it is,” she said.
Among the questions the timeline didn’t address: Why did it take so long for the third rail to be shut down? Why did the train operator keep telling passengers to stay put? And why wasn’t Metro better able to ventilate the smoke-filled tunnel?
“There are a lot of questions that remain,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat who took office Jan. 2.
Even the timeline released by the city had major holes: It said the first ambulance arrived on the scene nearly an hour after smoke was reported. City officials insisted Thursday that ambulances were there much sooner, but they didn’t say exactly when.
One of the two passengers who plans to sue, Malbert Rich, 53, said he composed final text messages to his mother and children, thinking he might not survive.
“I just didn’t see any way that we were going to get out of there because the smoke was encapsulating and all you could see out the window was darkness,” Rich said.
Other passengers cried, cursed and prayed. Some shared water, and then a bottle of wine as they waited, he said.
The official timeline says the first report of trouble came at 3:18 p.m. on Monday, when a 911 caller reported smoke emerging from a tunnel.
Several 911 calls followed as train cars filled with smoke and some passengers began to panic.
By 3:45 p.m., two people were still calling from the train to ask if help was on the way. The first firefighters are believed to have reached the train three minutes later, deputy city administrator Kevin Donahue said Thursday.
It was another 21 minutes after that, at 4:09 p.m., that officials reported performing CPR on a passenger who later died. Passengers have said they tried to revive her on the train before emergency responders got there. She wasn’t taken to a hospital until 4:25 p.m. – more than an hour after the smoke was spotted.
Many passengers finally decided to evacuate on their own, against the operator’s instructions. Some reached the station just when emergency responders were leaving the platform and entering the tunnel.
“We were not given any information that police or fire were en route, or nearby,” said Luis Clemens, 47, a National Public Radio editor who left the train. “All we got was, ‘Stay in place. Yes, I know there’s smoke. Don’t leave.’ And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
The city fire department has also acknowledged problems with radio communications inside the tunnel. Firefighters’ union president Ed Smith said the department has run into trouble in the past when transmitters installed by Metro inside the tunnels have malfunctioned, inhibiting communication.
Smith also said Metro has the ability to use its exhaust system to pull smoke out of a station or push it down a tunnel, and it’s not clear to what extent that was done in Monday’s incident.
“I feel they did the best they could,” Smith said of the firefighters who responded. “There were hundreds of people evacuated off that train, single-file and in a smoke-filled environment. It was a very difficult situation for everybody and it was a huge undertaking.”
Hundreds answered an online fundraiser to cover $10,000 in funeral costs for Glover, the passenger who died. The donations on gofundme.com totaled more than $14,000 by Thursday afternoon.
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