“This is it. This is how I’ll die.”
That’s what Tom Davey thought at the bleakest moments in the January 2015 Metrorail smoke incident that claimed the life of another passenger, Carol Glover.
Davey even tried to call his ex-wife so she could tell their daughter Althea that he loved her. But he couldn’t get a phone connection.
Federal investigations of the electrical fire, which burned the third rail and electrical cables, uncovered irregular maintenance, failure to replace old equipment, faulty safety inspections, and inadequate emergency protocols. The incident served as a wakeup call to Metro and the community that the increased safety effort, following the catastrophic 2009 crash that took nine lives, fell way short of the needed level.
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Davey, now 64, was on the ill-fated train that left the L’Enfant Plaza station heading toward Virginia shortly after 3 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. A music teacher and Takoma Park resident, he had his guitar and his bike, which he planned to ride after leaving the subway to an Alexandria family’s home to give a lesson to their two sons.
The train had just left the L’Enfant station and was in the tunnel that leads to a bridge over the Potomac River to Virginia, Davey recalled, when it stopped. He noted that after two and a half years, his memory of the incident is not perfect.
At first, he said, “I felt the inconvenience” because a long delay might put him late for his lesson. Davey was in a car fairly near the rear of the train, and at first the smoke did not reach that far back.
Quite soon after stopping, the operator announced over the P.A. system that the train would back up, “but that never happened,” Davey said. The operator assured the passengers that the situation would be addressed, he added, and continued to do so even after it clearly was out of hand. That disconnect greatly increased the stress for Davey, and he presumed, for other passengers.
When smoke first reached the car Davey was in, “It wasn’t so bad,” he said. Quickly, however, “It got really bad. It got so you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.” Davey estimated that the smoke continued to build up in the rail car for a half hour or longer. This is consistent with federal reports about the incident that Metro did not turn off the power in that stretch of tracks until 44 minutes after the incident began.
“People were coughing heavily,” he recalled. The operator “kept saying ‘don’t panic, don’t open the doors’” on the sides of the cars and between them, he continued. The operator also asked people not to leave their cars, but some people did, Davey said. He stayed in his car. Though people opened the car doors, “it wasn’t like you were letting fresh air in,” he said.
At some point, he added, “Some passengers came by carrying a body” that he now presumes was Carol Glover’s.
There was a woman Metro police officer on his car, Davey said. She had no special breathing equipment; her situation was the same as that of the passengers. “She was really good. She helped as much as she could,” he added.
“The longer that kept happening” — the smoke getting worse and the conductor urging calm — the more Davey felt endangered. Suddenly, he recalled, “The operator asked for help. He sounded panicky. We [passengers] realized he had no contact with” Metrorail’s control office.
That’s when Davey began to feel panicky, and thought he would die there.
Finally, he said, the D.C. Fire Department arrived. “I was pretty grateful when they showed up,” Davey said, understating his relief. With the firefighters’ powerful flashlights, Davey and other passengers were able to walk along the catwalks to the L’Enfant Plaza station. He was asked to leave his bike and guitar, but he kept his guitar with him.
After all the operator’s talk about hoping to get backed up to the station, he found it had been abandoned by all passengers and Metro staff. There was still another train in the station, he noted, so the stricken train could not have gone back there. He was surprised at how close the station was, he added.
He also was surprised, in the aftermath of the incident, that there weren’t more fatalities, he recalled.
Once out of the station, he and other passengers were led to a triage bus, where they were prioritized for seriousness of medical problems, he recalled. Davey sat there for several hours waiting to be called. “Some people were in really bad shape,” he said. He left the bus without being seen. Reports from that day said that 80 people were hospitalized from the incident.
For the “first couple of days” after the incident, “I was in a daze.” Davey was coughing up particles and soot from the fire. “The gunk that I was expelling, the streaks of black soot coming out,” took several days to clear, he said.
“People that I know said I was in a state of shock or had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” he recalled. It took about a month “until I had a sense of humor back,” he added.
Ellie Isaac, a licensed acupuncturist at his church, the Greenbelt Community United Church of Christ, “offered me free treatment,” he said. Isaac, who has a master’s in acupuncture, took a full medical history, did a comprehensive patient interview, and decided what problems to address and what the acupuncture program would be, Davey noted. The treatment was aimed at PTSD, and continued weekly for a year or more, he said. It was extremely helpful for him, he added.
Davey contacted Metro the week of the incident to retrieve his bike. They were not hard to contact by email, he said. The Thursday after the incident, he went to Metro headquarters in D.C. Someone from Metro brought the bike down while he waited in the lobby.
Other than that, Davey’s last contact with Metro was receiving emails notifying him of hearings about the incident held by the National Transportation Safety Board. He did not attend the hearings.
On Jan. 12, 2016, the one-year anniversary of the incident, 87 lawsuits were filed against Metro and the D.C. Fire Department by 86 surviving passengers and the family of the deceased passenger, Carol Glover. Added to cases filed shortly after the incident, there were approximately 115 cases filed in the matter. In January 2017, Metro cross-claimed against the Fire Department, asserting its rescue efforts were slow and inept, and violated a contract protocol between the two agencies on emergency response.
Twenty-five of the passenger claimants dropped their cases on May 26, 2017. While their attorneys said the reasons were confidential, it appeared that the cases had been settled.
Most recently, on August 10, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the federal district court in D.C. dismissed all the actions, including Metro’s, against the D.C. Fire Department. She held that the Fire Department had sovereign immunity from liability, because its decisions in the emergency, which had to consider the safety of first responders, needed “fearless, vigorous, effective decision making” not clouded by concerns about liability.
About 80 cases remain pending, including the one filed by Glover’s family.