Nelson Lewis smoke

A DC Metro station filling up with smoke

On Monday, tragedy struck in DC after a Metro filled with smoke, leaving one woman dead and scores of passengers injured.  A timeline of emergency response to the issue corroborates riders’ account that they waited at least 35 minutes trapped in a dark, smoky tunnel before firefighters finally began to rescue them.  This timeline reveals that after firefighters had arrived on the L’Enfant Plaza underground platform shortly after 3:30, they had to wait 13 minutes before moving into the tunnel and toward the train, since they needed assurance from Metro that power to the electrified third rail had been cut.

According to this timeline, the first rescues started soon after firefighters received permission to move into the tunnel, at 3:44, 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, and by this time it was nearly 4.  This sequence helps to clarify how the District reacted to the emergency amid complaints from passengers that they were trapped for what seemed to be an “interminable” amount of time.  One person, 61 year-old Carol Glover of Alexandria, died after being carried from the train, and 83 other passengers were taken to area hospitals, two of them in critical condition.

Metro and District officials have so far declined to comment publicly on specifics of the event, citing the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.  However, authorities have been compiling a timeline for the federal agency, which is reconstructing the response and rescue, as well as trying to figure out what caused the incident.  District fire officials first got a hint of trouble at around 3:18, when a construction worker called 911 to report smoke coming from a street vent at Ninth and Water Streets SW.  At 3:22, Metro told the fire department that there was smoke in the station and, two minutes later, elevated that to “heavy smoke”.  At 3:28, the fire department declared a “Metro tunnel box alarm”, meaning a possible fire in a tunnel and triggered 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.  By then, 911 operators had been flooded with calls, with firefighters rushing toward the station being met by hundreds of fleeing passengers.  The first 911 call from a train passenger came at 3:33, saying that it was filling up with smoke.

At 3:44, Metro alerted firefighters that electricity to the third rail had been shut off, and it was now safe to enter the tunnel.  Two more passengers called 911, asking whether or not help was on the way.  One official briefed on the timeline said that the next news came at 4, when a paramedic was reported with a patient.  DC Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who is chairman of the committee with oversight on fire, said that the currently unfolding details, as well as accounts of passengers about how long it took firefighters to respond, show how many questions still remain.