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L'Enfant Metro Incident Raises Questions About D.C. Emergency Response

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Monday's L'Enfant Plaza Metro incident has raised questions about Metro’s response to the situation, whether swifter action could have prevented the injuries and how Washington’s vast law enforcement network communicates in an underground transit disaster.  

On Monday afternoon, a Yellow-line train from L'Enfant Plaza came to a halt inside the tunnel and the station and train filled with smoke, killing one woman and hospitalizing dozens more. Following early accounts of smoke of an unknown origin reported in a downtown Metro station, Capitol Police say they were in close contact with law enforcement officials. There was no apparent change to security posture around Congress during the emergency.  

Deadly rush hour attacks in London, Moscow and other international cities have resonance in the District of Columbia. The Metro Transit Police Department created a 20-member anti-terrorism team in 2009, devoted to deterring attacks, and D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency has a threat analysis center to coordinate crisis communications.  

An HSEMA spokesperson said the L'Enfant emergency was communicated to partners Monday by its 24-hour Joint All Hazard Operation Center. The staff at the center notified local and federal emergency partners of the incident by its email and text alert system known as “Alert DC.”  

According to U.S. Capitol Police spokesman Shennell S. Antrobus, the department “maintained its high-level security posture throughout the event at L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.” In a statement to CQ Roll Call, Antrobus said Capitol Police “kept in communication with our law enforcement and public safely partners for situational awareness.”  

In a press conference late Monday night, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Mike Flanigon said there was no fire, but there was an electrical malfunction ahead of the train.  

“There were reports of a lot of smoke, smoke getting into the train, and people — what's called self-evacuate,” Flanigon said. “That is, they started opening the doors and getting off.”  

On Tuesday, a Metro spokesperson referred all questions about communications and interoperability to the NTSB, citing the ongoing investigation.  

“NTSB is not a first response agency,” said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the federal entity. He emphasized that investigators arrive on the scene “once smoke [has] cleared,” and said that the agency will look at emergency response as part of its investigation.  

The incident had some members of Congress criticizing the emergency response procedure, citing reports of passengers stuck inside the train for a prolonged period of time, breathing in the smoke, before being told by first responders that they could evacuate.  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., asked for a congressional briefing Tuesday to inform regional representatives about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s response to the incident.  

“I have requested a congressional briefing for the entire region on Metro’s safety and emergency response procedures,” Norton said in a statement. "I know that the National Transportation Safety Board will do a thorough job investigating the incident and determining its cause.”  

According to Norton’s spokesman, she is asking that the NTSB brief the regional delegation about the incident and the briefing would not be open to the public.  

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also called for a briefing Tuesday in the wake of the incident, but he insisted that WMATA officials address the situation.  

“Here in Congress, the National Capital Region delegation has fought hard for each annual installment of a ten year, $1.5 billion commitment to provide WMATA with the resources to make safety improvements and upgrade its infrastructure,” Warner wrote in a letter to WMATA chief executive officer Richard Sarles. “With that ongoing financial commitment, we demand assurances that safety of the Metro system is indeed improving. Commuters and visitors to D.C. deserve no less."  

In the meantime, WMATA is working with the NTSB to determine the cause of the incident.  

“To those who were injured or frightened, and to the thousands who have been inconvenienced by this major service disruption, I offer a heartfelt apology,” WMATA board of directors chairman Tom Downs said in a statement Tuesday. He added, “Please know that once the cause of this incident is understood, we are prepared to take the actions needed to prevent this from happening again.”  

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