Metro Transit Police officers went to investigate smoke inside the L’Enfant Plaza station tunnel ahead of the arrival of an ill-fated train in January, but turned back after the smoke dissipated and didn’t report the occurrence to command staff because they couldn’t get through on a radio channel.
Two MTP officers walked about 50 feet into the tunnel after a woman on the station platform told them she had seen a spark in the tunnel, according to interviews conducted by officials investigating the deadly Jan. 12 incident that left one woman dead and sickened more than 80 others. The statements of the MTP officers corroborate a witness account originally reported by The Washington Times.
“We proceeded down the platform towards the Huntington — towards the front of the train where the front of the train would have been, and we saw a cloud of smoke, which we believed was, like, brake dust, which is common in the metro, brake dust,” said MTP Officer Franschesca Young in an interview transcript released Tuesday. “There was no more smoke after we did a little tunnel inspection to make sure nothing was coming from the tunnel. When we turned around, we were walking back to the platform, there was nothing in the air. It was clear.”
The interview transcripts were among hundreds of documents published Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board as it convened a two-day fact-finding hearing on the deadly incident. More than 6,000 pages’ worth of documents include interviews with Metro employees such as the train operator and first responders, safety protocol and recommendations and factual reports of the day’s events.
One of the reports that gives a minute-by-minute breakdown of all actions caught on the station’s surveillance cameras confirms Officer Young’s account, noting that after she and a second officer emerged from the tunnel, they were among the passengers who boarded the next Yellow Line train, Train 302, which became disabled inside the smoke-filled tunnel.
The second officer, Katya Paige, told investigators that she tried to radio her command to communicate an inspection of the tunnel but that the radio channel was being used by other officers at the time. The smoke had dissipated and didn’t seem to be a big deal, but Officer Paige said she intended to inform command of what she had seen later once she boarded the train.
Inside the tunnel, however, her radio signal dropped.
“I [tried] to use my radio [but] couldn’t get out,” she said.
Also included in the documents released was the first public account of the incident by the train operators involved.
The operator of Train 302, James Curley, repeatedly radioed the Metro command center asking for permission to reverse his train to get back to the L’Enfant station and away from the source of the smoke — which was later found to be an arcing insulator in the tunnel. The NTSB previously said the smoke was caused by “electrical arcing,” which occurs when something makes contact with the train’s high-voltage third rail.
“I was going back and forth with them saying, ‘Central, be advised I got people on the train [and] they’re saying they can’t breathe, they’re coughing, they’re vomiting. I need to get back to the platform, I need to get back to the platform.’ And they just kept telling me, ‘Stand by, stand by, stand by,’” Mr. Curley said.
Connie Conner, the operator of Train 510, which pulled into the L’Enfant station after Train 302, said she had been advised to look out for smoke in the station but was never advised to stop or divert her course beforehand.
“When I first hit the platform, I didn’t see anything. But the next thing I know, I’m engulfed in smoke,” Ms. Conner said. “And I stopped the train, I called Central and told them, ‘This is 510, Central, I can’t see anything.’ I didn’t get a response.”
She radioed again to say the smoke was so thick inside the station that she couldn’t even pull the train all the way up the platform. A Metro Transit Police officer at the station helped guide the train up the track using a flashlight once she pulled into the station, but then he ordered Ms. Connor to evacuate, and she left the train and the station.
Command center employees tried to radio back to see if they could get Train 510 moved out of the way so that Train 302 could return to the station, but they couldn’t reach Ms. Conner and said another supervisor who attempted to go into the station to help move the train was forced out by first responders.
Officials said at Tuesday’s hearings that they should have still been able to move the trapped train backwards toward the station, but that they were unable to because power had been cut.
“Having Train 510 on the platform did not at any time prevent Train 302 from being able to move back into the platform,” said Hercules Ballard, Metro’s managing director of rail transportation. “What we found out is there was not sufficient power being supplied to Train 302.”
The train was ultimately never moved, and firefighters had to enter the train tunnel to help evacuate the more than 200 passengers trapped on Train 302. Radio communication failures between Metro and first responders hampered the effort as first responders had difficulty determining when power to the train’s electrified third rail was cut, making it possible for them to safely navigate the track.
NTSB officials are expected to interview employees from Metro, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, D.C. Office of Unified Communications and others over the course of two days as part of their investigation.
“Unfortunately, the events of Jan. 12 clearly demonstrated that the attention that was given to safety was inadequate,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart in an opening statement Tuesday.
A full report of the investigation is not expected to be finalized until next year, however, the NTSB has already made several recommendations to improve safety. Mr. Hart noted prior recommendations that NTSB has made in the wake of the fatal incident include instructions about improving ventilation systems in train tunnels and recommendations on inadequately installed and weatherproofed power cable connectors within the transit system.