WASHINGTON — The operator of a Washington subway train that was forced to stop in a smoke-filled tunnel repeatedly asked for permission to return the train to the platform but was told to stay put as passengers coughed and choked, according to documents made public Tuesday.
Train operator James Curley told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that people on the train were "yelling, screaming, kicking and banging on the glass doors" as he was repeatedly told to wait in the tunnel.
One woman died and more than 80 others were sickened after an electrical malfunction caused the train to fill with smoke on the afternoon of Jan. 12 inside a downtown Washington tunnel. A transcript of Curley's interview was released Tuesday as the NTSB opened an investigative hearing into the disaster.
Curley said the Metro transit agency's command center was unable to clear another train from the platform to allow him to return there.
"I was going back and forth with them saying, Central, be advised I got people on the train they're saying they can't breathe, they're coughing, they're vomiting, I need to get back to the platform, I need to get back to the platform," he said. "And they just kept telling me, stand by, stand by."
Curley, who has worked for the transit agency for almost 15 years, described the passengers as increasingly desperate. Despite his instructions not to open the train car doors, he said some people evacuated on their own and started walking away from the train, using lights on their cellphones to guide them.
He said he got on the intercom and told passengers, "No, no, no, no, please do not go that direction that you're going to. You're going into where the danger is."
Many passengers who left the train on their own were able to get to safety long before firefighters arrived, more than 30 minutes after the train stopped in the tunnel.
The operator of the second train that stopped on the platform, Connie Conner, told investigators that she was told to look out for smoke but wasn't told to stop the train or back up so that the train ahead of her could return to the station. She said a transit police officer guided her down the platform amid the heavy smoke, and when they could go no further, she stopped the train and evacuated along with her passengers. She also said she tried to contact the command center before she left the train but couldn't get through.
However, a radio operator at the command center told investigators that she twice ordered Conner to stop her train as soon as Curley informed her he had stopped in the tunnel. The operator, Vale're White, described a chaotic atmosphere at the command center as employees there tried to figure out a solution.
"It just felt lost. It just felt like we were stuck almost," White said. "After a while, we lost communication with (Conner). We couldn't talk to her."
Other documents released Tuesday showed that the ventilation systems in Metro's tunnels — which the NTSB has already said were not working properly on the day of the malfunction — were never designed to remove smoke "from even a moderate fire." Metro conducted two studies in the 1980s that concluded the ventilation systems needed to be renovated, but the work was never done, the documents showed.
The NTSB also revealed that there were repeated water leaks near the site of the electrical malfunction. The board has ordered Metro to repair or replace components designed to protect the electrified third rail from water or other contaminants.
The cause of the malfunction has not been determined, and the NTSB is not expected to release a final report with recommendations until next year.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
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