A malfunctioning third rail, apparent communication breakdowns among fire and rescue personnel, and a delayed evacuation seem to have combined to causing one death and dozens of injuries at an underground DC Metro commuter train station in Washington, DC, on the afternoon of January 12, 2015. The deadly light rail accident occurred at L'Enfant Plaza. A total of 200 people were evaluated for injuries and smoke inhalation, with 67 survivors requiring medical treatment and two people arriving at hospitals in critical condition.
National Transportation Safety Board, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and local investigators determined that electrical arcing generated the smoke without igniting a fire. Such arcing occurs when a substance that conducts electricity comes close enough to the power-generating third rail of the Metro tracks to complete a circuit with an air gap. No one knows yet what the problematic substance was, but water standing on the floor of the tunnel could have attracted sparks.
Passengers interviewed after being rescued form the train described waiting as long as 40 minutes to receive instructions to evacuate the smoke-engulfed train. A woman who lost her life seems to have been overcome by smoke soon after the train came to stop a mere 800 feet from the station platform. Rail car doors remained sealed until emergency responders arrived.
That arrival may have taken longer than necessary because fire department and EMT radios could not function below ground. Two emergency responders told radio station WTOP that communication breakdowns hampered rescue efforts.
A full investigation to determine what went wrong, as well as how similar deadly mistakes do not recur, could take a year or more. As my Virginia personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I know from helping victims of numerous rail and public transportation accidents, the smallest errors can produce the most tragic results. Passengers hurt in this DC Metro incident, and the family of the woman who died, should consider scheduling consultations with attorneys who know how to represent their interests and can track and share information as it becomes available. Making such legal arrangements may be far from everyone's minds at this time. When injuries heal and grief subsides, however, finding an advocate should become a priority.