The subway train had just pulled out from a busy Washington station when it ground to a halt and foul-smelling smoke began filling the cars and the tunnel.
“We’re going to die here!” passengers cried.
In the fear and chaos that followed, riders prayed but also helped one another, performing mouth-to-mouth on an unconscious woman and offering an inhaler to a man curled in a fetal position on the train’s floor. Some waited anxiously for rescuers as instructed, while others opened the doors and broke out of the cars on their own.
One woman died and more than 80 other people were sent to the hospital, mostly for smoke inhalation, after an electrical malfunction Monday that left a multitude of unanswered questions a day later.
Commuters demanded to know: Was the train’s evacuation unnecessarily delayed? Were passengers given the right information? And what caused the death of the woman?
Authorities in the nation’s capital had no immediate answers.
The woman, whose name was not released, was the first fatality on Washington’s Metro system since a 2009 crash killed eight passengers and a train operator.
The malfunction happened at L’Enfant Plaza, one of the subway’s busiest stations, around 3:30 p.m. Monday, at the beginning of the afternoon rush hour. The stop is near the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and many federal office buildings, including the headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation.
NTSB investigator Michael Flanigon said the smoke started when something came into contact with the high-voltage third rail and caused an electrical arc.
The train stopped about 800 feet beyond the platform, and the arcing occurred roughly 1,000 feet beyond the train, Flanigon said. There was no fire.
Patti Aliventi, 49, was waiting for a train when she heard shouting and saw gray smoke filling the station. She said riders were told to get out, but a bottleneck developed when employees didn’t just open the fare gates to make it easier for people to leave.
Aboard the train, passenger Jonathan Rogers, 31, said he and two other people tried in vain for 20 minutes to revive a middle-aged woman who had slumped to the floor unconscious near the front of the train, where the smoke was the heaviest.
“We know you do chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth, so that’s what we did,” Rogers said. “Nothing was happening and she was laying there unconscious. Somebody took her pulse and said they couldn’t feel a pulse.”
Rogers said a man scooped the woman up in his arms and carried her through the cars toward the back of the train.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the woman was the one who died.
Rogers said he doesn’t understand why passengers weren’t allowed to leave the train sooner for the one- or two-minute walk back to the platform.
“It just kind of felt like, ‘Why were we trapped on that train that long?'” Rogers said. “All we did was sit there and wait. Forty minutes seems like a long time.”
Andrew Litwin, 21, a University of Texas student visiting the Washington area, said about 30 minutes into the ordeal, a fellow rider reached 911 on a cellphone. Litwin said the news that firefighters were aware of the problem calmed passengers, who had been yelling, “We’re going to die here!”