Commuters were left stranded for more than 35 minutes as the acrid smoke slowly filled their Yellow Line train as they coughed, became sick and even passed out. Take a look at this interactive timeline that explores the events of Jan. 12, 2015.
One rider was killed and dozens more were sent to the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.
The afternoon that smoke filled the Yellow Line train near L’Enfant Plaza, trains were running normally.
Although a full report on the investigation is not expected for a few more months, the National Transportation Safety Board said in June that the incident began with an electrical issue known as “arcing” tied to third rail power in the tunnel just before southbound Yellow Line trains go up and over the Potomac River toward Virginia. The arcing, about 2,000 feet south of the L’Enfant Plaza station, filled the tunnel with smoke, setting off a smoke alarm at 3:05 p.m.
A circuit breaker feeding power to that track tripped one minute later at the L’Enfant Plaza station, but a separate power supply continued to feed electricity from the other side of the incident.
Surveillance video shows the first smoke coming into the station’s platforms for Yellow and Green line trains at 3:09 p.m. The smoke seemed to fade a few minutes later, before flowing into the station around 3:18 p.m. By 3:20 p.m., all those waiting for trains on the platform moved to evacuate the station.
At 3:13 p.m., train 302 pulled into L’Enfant Plaza, then headed toward the smoke. The train operator stopped the train in the tunnel at 3:15 p.m. after running into such thick smoke that it was impossible to see. The back end of the train was less than 400 feet beyond the station platform.
The Rail Operations Control Center, which investigations have found had serious communication, training and staffing problems, then activated ventilation fans in the station after getting reports of smoke on the platforms.
The train operator then radioed in to report heavy smoke in the tunnel. Fans on the train continued to pull smoke inside.
The first firefighters were dispatched at 3:22 p.m. when someone called 911 to report thick, brown smoke emerging from the Metro ventilation shafts at the Southwest waterfront.
“I’m on a construction site at 9th and Water Street, Southwest, D.C. and there is a lot of smoke coming out of a Metro tunnel vent, like an escape, like an escape stairway,” the caller said. “I’m standing on top of the grating right now…it’s kinda heavy but I can see through it,” he told the operator.
At the same time, Metro called D.C. dispatchers to report “heavy smoke” in the L’Enfant Plaza station.
At 3:23 p.m., a train pulled onto the platform behind train 302, and was evacuated because of the smoke. Train 302 was blocked in.
At 3:24 p.m., with the ventilation fans in the station still trying to blow the smoke out, Metro controllers turned the ventilation fans on just on the other side of the incident, pulling the smoke that way as well. Some of the fans were not working at all.
A Metro Transit Police officer at L’Enfant Plaza called 911 asking for a medic.
“We got smoke in, in the station, and we got people who can barely breathe due to the smoke,” the officer said.
At 3:25 p.m., firefighters got to the Water Street construction site, where they saw two people coming up the ventilation shaft that was filled with smoke. They had decided to evacuate on their own. The firefighters went down 50 to 75 feet to help them.
A few minutes later, a 49-year-old man who had been on the platform called 911 for an ambulance because he was having trouble breathing.
“It’s a big fire from the train station. It’s a big fire. It’s smoke coming from everywhere. It’s a lot of people down there. They ran everybody outta there. It’s like, Dawg, you couldn’t even see,” he told the dispatcher. “It’s a lot of people out here. A lot of people coughing and stuff,” he said.
At 3:26 p.m., D.C. dispatched firefighters to L’Enfant Plaza. They arrived five minutes later, just before someone on the train stuck in the tunnel called 911 at 3:33 p.m..
“It’s an emergency. There is a Metro train. We are stuck in a tunnel and the train is filling up with smoke. They’re not letting us get to the platform,” he said. He told the operator that the train was just outside L’Enfant Plaza on the Yellow Line.
That information was not fully communicated to the firefighters on scene.
“It’s going to be a bad situation here very soon,” the caller said.
Another caller on the train had told dispatchers the train was at or on its way to the Pentagon. The D.C. operator transferred her to Arlington 911, who then transferred the call to Metro Transit Police.
“Yes, we need everybody to come together, because the Metro, you know, they can’t do nothing about it,” the caller told the Arlington and D.C. operators.
He can be heard coughing in the 911 recording, and he says “people are suffocating.”
D.C., Arlington and a Metro Transit Police operator worked together to figure out where the train was and didn’t reach a clear conclusion.
At 3:39 p.m., another caller from the train accurately described its location after some help from others onboard.
“We need help. We need you to move the train,” she begs the operator. “People are having to get on the floor because there is – they can’t breathe,” she says.
Only at 3:40 p.m. was the third rail power for the Green and Yellow lines shut off in the station. But the power feeding the arcing incident remained on. The Rail Operations Control Center sent a command to turn off that power at 3:49 p.m.
More than 40 minutes after the smoke began, the power was finally cut.
At 3:42 p.m., 3:43 p.m. and 3:45 p.m., four separate calls accurately described the location of the train and asked for help. The man who called at 3:42 stayed on the line and ended the call when he saw rescuers coming on board.
“You all need some better procedures, man,” he told the operator. “Because people die up here… Only thing that the man that drive this train; he did stay calm,” the man said.
The first firefighters reached the train at 3:50 p.m. and the evacuation began. The firefighters said they could not see the train through the smoke until they were right next to it.
Eventually, 380 people were taken off the train through the tunnel. Several others had decided to escape through an emergency exit on their own.
By 4:27 p.m., everyone was off the train, including Carol Glover.
The 61-year-old grandmother was among the first people taken off the train. She was unconscious, but alive when she was carried to the platform. By the time firefighters carried her outside, her pulse was gone. Only once she was at the surface, without a pulse, did rescuers call her an ambulance. They continued CPR and the ambulance left for the hospital at 4:28 p.m.
In all, 86 people were taken to the hospital; 9 other people got medical attention outside the station. All but Glover survived.