By Susan Hale Thomas (Courtesy photo)
Around 3:14 p.m. last Tuesday, their Yellow Line train came to a stop in the tunnel between the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station and the bridge over the Potomac River.
The boys, on their way home from school, thought it was just a delay, something Metro riders are accustomed to. Then they noticed smoke outside the train.
Something was wrong.
“There’s smoke in the tunnel,” the conductor announced. “Remain calm. We’re going to be headed back to the platform in just a second.”
“He kept saying that over and over again,” said Joey Peterson, a 16-year-old Gonzaga College High School sophomore. Peterson was with six classmates heading home to Alexandria after a long day of school.
“Eventually it got harder and harder to breathe,” he said. “People started coughing, and it was getting worse. … He kept saying stay calm and there was no fire. But, the train was filling with smoke.
“He kept telling us not to open the doors and we would be going back to the platform, but we had to wait for clearance [because] there was a train behind us at the station. They were trying to get that train out of the way. People began arguing about whether or not to open the doors.”
The students did what they were told, but they were beginning to question the wisdom of following the conductor’s instructions. The boys were fortunate to be in the company of a uniformed military man.
The air quality on the train rapidly deteriorated. Ten minutes went by without an announcement.
“We were all down on the floor of the train to get away from the smoke,” Peterson said, recalling the fear he felt. “The car was getting increasingly worse from the smoke. It was so thick.”
After about half an hour, Peterson said the conductor repeated the same instructions to stay calm.
“When the military guy said ‘We’re going to have to get out of here or we’re going to die,’ then it kind of hit me,” Peterson said. “The military guy yells, ‘Fire doesn’t kill you, smoke kills you! We gotta go!’
“We were the first people to get off.”
The group left the train and found themselves wedged on a small walkway between the train and the tunnel wall. Peterson said he could only see just a step ahead from the smoke. He used his phone for a flashlight. From the outside, they could see passengers on the floor of the train cars.
“I started getting a lot more scared, when we started walking down the pathway,” he said. “I was really scared, because I thought the train would start moving while we were right next to it.”
When they reached the back of the train, they saw a firefighter wearing a gas mask. He told them to be careful of the third rail and to continue toward the platform, which was nearly 400 feet ahead, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Peterson said first responders were standing on the platform and appeared confused. They said nothing to him or his classmates.
The train the conductor had hoped would be moved away from the platform was still there. Upon leaving the station, Peterson saw a fleet of fire trucks and called his mother to explain the situation.
“We Ubered home,” Peterson said.
A TRAGIC END
Unlike Peterson and other passengers, Alexandria resident Carol Glover, 61, was unable to evacuate.
Glover suffered from asthma and was struggling to breathe on the smoke-filled train when she collapsed. Jonathan Rogers and two other passengers tried to help Glover.
When she became unresponsive, they administered CPR, but it was for naught. Glover died from smoke inhalation. Her family held a public memorial service Monday at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C.
“You did all you could for my mother, for my family,” Anthony Glover II, her oldest son, told Rogers. “My family is your family. I love you for that.”
Carol Glover had two sons: Anthony, who lives in New Mexico, and Marcus, a D.C. resident. She also was a grandmother.
Glover was a Senior Business Analyst at DKW Communications and recently was named Employee of the Year.
Corinne Inman, 86, Glover’s mother, spoke to the congregation gathered to mourn her daughter’s passing. She found it ironic her husband had died 33 years prior, on that same day in 1982, of smoke inhalation in a D.C. house fire. But Inman did not want to see people despair.
“Carol’s death was for a purpose, to make a change,” she said.
QUESTIONS FOR METRO
Change certainly something passengers want to see after last week’s incident. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating maintenance records of the track, signal and power systems, as well as Metro’s ventilation systems and railcars. The agency will review WMATA’s emergency response, evacuation plans and employee training records.
Leila Peterson, Joey’s mother said now that she’s learned more about what happened from the NTSB report, she’s angry.
She wants to know how seven students who emerged from a smoke filled train tunnel in front of a platform of first responders weren’t checked out by medics, much less spoken to. The fact that first responders were just over 100 yards away from the train of choking passengers is difficult for her to reconcile.
“Initially, I was giving the benefit of the doubt to the first responders,” Peterson said. “But then thinking about the timeline of what happened and the fact that no one checked these boys out, at that point no one even knew what had caused it, so the smoke could have been toxic. Why didn’t someone say, ‘Let’s take you over to an ambulance to have you checked out?’”
But she also feels thankful that the boys escaped unscathed.
“I feel really lucky that guy was on Joey’s train and decided to open the doors,” she said.