Metro Blames DC Fire for Failed Response to Deadly Smoke Incident in 2015

Metro asked a court to dismiss legal claims against it for a deadly smoke incident at L'Enfant Plaza in 2015, arguing that it has immunity from the lawsuits -- and putting the blame on D.C. first-responders.

In a filing in federal court Monday, Metro denied all liability, arguing it is a government-created agency that can't be sued and adding that the D.C. Fire and EMS (FEMS) department is responsible for rescuing or evacuating passengers on its trains.

And Metro filed a cross-claim against the District of Columbia, saying firefighters and paramedics ignored critical information coming from WMATA. It claims D.C. Fire sent an inexperienced battalion commander to the scene, who failed to manage the response.

"The D.C. FEMS Incident Commander failed to learn the critical fact that passengers on Train 302 were inside the tunnel and that the tunnel and train were filling with smoke. The Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief tried to communicate this critical piece of information to the Incident Commander several times, and each time the Incident Commander rolled up his vehicle window and drove off," Metro's claim reads. 

It also claims that D.C. Fire didn't give Metro quick access to an above-ground communications facility that Metro believed was key to fixing emergency radios in the tunnel.

"As a result of DC Fire and Emergency Services' utter disregard for its duties in responding to such emergencies, Metrorail passengers experienced injuries that were more severe than they otherwise would have been, and the event ended in tragedy," reads Metro's claim against D.C. government.

When asked about the claims, Metro said it would not comment on pending lawsuits. D.C. FEMS has not yet responded to the suit.

"I cannot respond to their legal claims," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Tuesday afternoon. "There will be an opportunity for us to respond to their legal claims, and we’ll do it in the legal process. What I will tell riders is that their fire department is ready to respond."

Bowser commended first-responders for running into harm’s way to save people that day two years ago.

“But for their actions, we don’t even know what the severity of that incident could have been,” she said.

Bowser said she called a news conference Tuesday because "I wanted to be perfectly clear that the D.C. Fire and emergency system is ready and able to respond."

"We have our opinion," said Fire Chief Gregory Dean, who was not chief at the time of the incident. "We think that we have a great fire department, we think our people are well trained, ready to go and we will continue to improve on that."

But that's exactly what Metro says did not happen on that deadly day at L'Enfant Plaza.

On the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2015, smoke filled a tunnel just beyond the L'Enfant Plaza Metrorail station. A Yellow Line train encountered the smoke and stopped in the tunnel.

The train filled with smoke; Carol Glover, a 61-year-old commuter from Virginia, died in the smoke-filled train

Passengers said they were ordered to stay on the train. Some took their lives in their hands and evacuated on their own.

The smoke was eventually traced to an electrical malfunction that sent thick, black smoke into the tunnel. An investigation found Glover died of acute respiratory failure due to smoke exposure. 

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a list of 43 findings that it says led to the the deadly L'Enfant Plaza incident — including improperly secured and covered power cables, water problems, poor training and lack of procedures and proper maintenance. 

The deadly incident was part of the reason that the federal government took oversight of Metro safety in the fall. It also led to more than 80 lawsuits against Metro on behalf of passengers who lived through the ordeal.

Those passengers have said they struggle with complications from smoke inhalation and from the trauma of the day.

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