WASHINGTON — First there was a boom, then the Yellow Line train screeched to a halt.
That was the start of what would soon become a nightmare commute one year ago for the people on that train, including Jeff Todd, of Alexandria, Virginia.
“There wasn’t any panic at the beginning,” Todd explained.
He said that at first, he and fellow riders stuck in the tunnel were annoyed, believing it was another common Metro delay. When people started to see smoke, Todd watched as other riders took pictures, some planning to show them to their bosses when they showed up late to work.
Then they got a sign of the seriousness of the situation, Todd said: They heard the panicked voice of the train’s operator over the loudspeaker as he spoke with Metro dispatchers. Ten minutes into the smoke incident, Todd said, it became apparent they were dealing with an emergency.
As smoke poured into the train, Todd soon realized there was as much smoke inside the train as there was outside. That, he said, is when people began getting sick; some passed out.
“People started coughing and then people with T-shirts, put T-shirts over their noses, some people were putting ties or their jackets or shirts over the nose or mouth,” Todd said.
It was decision time: Wait for first responders, who the operator said were on their way, or try to get out of the train? Todd and several others decided the best option was to evacuate the train and walk to safety.
They opened one of the train’s doors, and Todd set out first. He turned left and caught a glimpse of a walkway along the tracks. With the help of the flashlight on his iPhone, he stepped onto the path and began walking in the opposite direction of L’Enfant Plaza.
Covering his mouth, he walked through the thick smoke. As he moved along the tracks, Todd could see people still inside the train. He also looked behind him and saw the light from another rider’s phone.
“Eventually when I got to the clear air, there was only one guy behind me,” Todd said.
Todd believes some of the group either returned to the train, or decided to walk toward the platform at L’Enfant Plaza station.
He had made it to safety. Later, he learned that one woman died and others were taken to the hospital.
Todd said the event doesn’t haunt him, but he does remain worried about possible health problems which may come later from inhaling the smoke for a long period of time.
“When I get a cold, when I get sick and I start coughing, is there something that’s residual?”
Todd said the incident should be used as a learning experience for WMATA.
“Hopefully they’ve put in place, or are deciding procedures that they can put in place, that will keep something like that from happening again,” Todd said.
Todd believes the train’s operator and first responders did the best they could, given the circumstances.
He said like other forms of public transit, there is always a risk that something can go wrong, but that concern will not keep him from riding Metro.
“I’m safer on a Metro than I am driving on 395,” Todd said.