They just wanted to get out.
After smoke filled a Metrorail tunnel Monday afternoon, and passengers on one stuck train found themselves struggling to breathe, some of the passengers left the train cars themselves -- without waiting for rescuers.
They braved not only the unknown source of the smoke, but also the high-voltage third rail.
Self-evacuation is a danger, but it's one that administrators of the Metro system had recently discussed.
A review of agency meeting logs by the I-Team shows one of Metro's assistant general managers told Metro board members in April 2013 that passengers’ fear of being stuck on a train is so great that they would rather risk self-evacuation than remain on the train.
Those meeting logs also show members of the agency’s Riders Advisory Council recommended Metro’s board consider a “timeframe," after which stranded passengers could “choose to self-evacuate” if staff hadn’t yet provided information to passengers.
Joseph Kitchen, a former member of the Riders Advisory Council, told the I-Team the panel held several discussions about developing a self-evacuation policy because it was of significant interest to passengers in 2012 and 2013, after two high-profile incidents in which riders evacuated stopped trains on their own.
“We wanted Metro to have conversations and look and study about how long people should be on the train, when there's an incident and how soon they should be able to evacuate themselves," Kitchen said.
A Metro spokesman referred all questions about the Monday incident at L’Enfant Plaza to the National Transportation Safety Board, which also declined to comment on the issue of self-evacuations until it completes its investigation.
A spokesperson for the Federal Transit Administration, which oversees subway systems, told the I-Team, “FTA does not have specific requirements or regulations in place related to emergency evacuations."
"Transit agencies typically have their own set of procedures and protocols for conducting evacuations and responding to emergency situations," the spokesperson said.
The I-Team’s review of agency security records shows at least two self-evacuations since 2012. In one case, dozens of passengers bailed on to the tracks from a Green Line train stuck between the Anacostia and Navy Yard stations in January 2013.
An agency review of the incident said passengers had reported medical emergencies and heat inside the train at the time.
Metro Transit Police had to escort the passengers who had self-evacuated through a vent shaft to escape the tracks. A US Park Police helicopter was launched to help monitor the safety of those passengers, who’d surfaced at an open lot near Anacostia.
At a February 2013 Metro board meeting to review the January 2013 Green Line incident, the assistant General Manager told board members, “Customers were alarmed; some were frightened; all inconvenienced and very uncomfortable by the heat and the crowding conditions on board those trains.”