Passenger on smoke-filled D.C. train: 'We didn't see a way out of it'

Timeline released by D.C. officials shows delayed response in Metro smoke incident

A man who was trapped on a smoke-filled subway train in Washington, D.C., this week with dozens of other passengers talked about his ordeal Thursday, describing how he was so scared for his life that he sent his family what he believed would be his final messages.

“I just didn’t see a way that we were going to get out of there,” said Malbert Rich, 53, of Fredericksburg, Va. “The smoke was encapsulating.”

One woman was killed and dozens of others injured Monday after an electrical problem filled the Metro platform and a train at the busy L’Enfant Plaza station with smoke.

Rich spoke to reporters at a news conference Thursday, flanked by personal injury attorney Kim Brooks-Rodney, who said she plans to file a lawsuit on Rich’s behalf Friday morning. The lawsuit will name Metro as a defendant and will allege negligent maintenance, inspection and a negligent response to the emergency by the transit agency, the attorney said.

“We’re filing it so soon because frankly we need to know what the heck happened in that subway tunnel on Monday,” Brooks-Rodney said at the press conference. “The community has a right to know what happened.”

A timeline of the emergency response released by District of Columbia officials Thursday shows that passengers were still calling for help nearly 30 minutes after the smoke was first reported.

According to a timeline released by City Administrator Rashad Young, a caller first reported seeing smoke coming out of a Metro tunnel a few blocks away near the Gallery Place Metro in Chinatown at 3:18 p.m.

The first emergency unit arrived at L’Enfant Plaza station, where the passengers were trapped, 13 minutes later, and it wasn’t until 13 minutes after that, at 3:44, that officials confirmed there were people trapped on a train. Dispatchers received at least 13 initial calls for help reporting the smoke.

At 3:45, 27 minutes after the first call, two 911 calls were received asking “if help is on the way because the train is filling with smoke.” 

At 4:09, a battalion chief reported that a patient on the train was having a seizure, and that rescuers were performing CPR on a woman. It is not clear if the person who had the seizure was the woman receiving CPR. 

At 4:25, more than an hour after the smoke was first reorted, the woman was taken to George Washington University Hospital as medics continued to perform CPR.

A Metro spokeswoman declined to comment on the timeline, deferring questions to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation.

Brooks-Rodney said she has been retained by Rich and another passenger. Both received medical treatment following the incident, she said, and described a scene of chaos. She claims to have appointments scheduled with 20 other potential clients related to the incident.

“If Metro has a safety protocol for evacuating a tunnel, it wasn’t implemented very well on Monday,” Brooks-Rodney told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday morning. “They were literally trapped like rats, and people thought they were going to die. They didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack, or if the train was on fire or what.”

Just released from the Georgetown University Hospital, Rich told reporters Thursday that his train suddenly stopped about a minute after leaving L’Enfant Plaza station en route toward Virginia. The lights went out, and then dim, emergency lights came on, he said.

The conductor told passengers over the intercom that there was a "temporary problem" and that there was smoke ahead in the tunnel. Rich said the conductor told them he was going to try and reverse the train back to L’Enfant Plaza for evacuation.

The driver attempted several times to do this, Rich said, but each time the train lurched a small distance and abruptly stopped.  

According to Rich, the train operator said that another train at the station needed to be moved back before they could return to L’Enfant.

He said several transit police officers on board were yelling into their radios, attempting to contact the command center or a station manager to coordinate the evacuation, but “there was a lot of miscommunication.”

Smoke continue to seep into the train as transit officers and staff moved from one car to another, opening and closing doors as they went, Rich said.

Train operators told passengers to stay put, Rich said, so they passed around water bottles, and at one point, even a wine bottle, sharing sips as smoke continued to billow in.

Some people left the train on their own, but most stayed on board as instructed, Rich told reporters, afraid that they might step on the electrified third rail or succumb to smoke outside.

About 10 or 15 minutes into the ordeal, Rich said, “it turned frightening.” People took turns lying on the train floor to get fresh air and passengers were crying, cursing and praying loudly, he said.

Rich texted his mother, saying he’d loved being her son, and told his kids he’d loved being their father.

“It was sort of surreal,” Rich said.

When passengers were finally evacuated, Rich said, people were patient and calm, helping one another out of the train. Several passengers assisted a man in a wheelchair, he said.

“It was a story of human kindness,” Rich said.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

10:47 a.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comments from passenger Malbert Rich and his attorney.

This story was originally published at 9:09 a.m.

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