Personal Injury expert attorney Peter Grenier, who has handled numerous cases against WMATA, discusses the incident and the potential liability:
At about 3:30 Monday afternoon, January 12, 2015, commuters riding the Virginia-bound Yellow Line, which had just left the L’Enfant Plaza station in Washington, D.C., were terror-stricken as their train came to a stop, all of the lights went out, and the cars filled with smoke. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, with the United States still wearing a bulls-eye on its back, this horrific event had all of the markings of a terrorist attack: a concentration of a large number of people in a tightly confined area, in a dark tunnel, with no obvious means of escape, and no information about what was happening. The scene was chaotic as people tried to escape the smoke. Many panicked people were screaming, some were choking, and some lost consciousness. Dozens were injured, three were critically injured, and one passenger died. When one woman lost consciousness, others started to administer CPR. The driver of the train initially told the occupants not to open the doors or more smoke would come into the cars. The horror of the situation, coupled with Metro’s ostensible complete lack of preparedness, created what can only be described as true pandemonium.
Many of the passengers harshly criticized Metro’s delayed response. Some said that it took 40 minutes to an hour before rescuers arrived. The six car train had only traveled about 800 feet from the platform when the incident occurred. Why did it take so long to get to the passengers? Eugene Jones, the interim chief of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, attributed the delay to sheer uncertainty – rescuers simply were not sure whether the subway’s electrified third rail had been deactivated. Well, WHY NOT? WMATA opened its subway system in 1976 – that’s almost 40 years ago. Are we to believe that Metro personnel could not immediately tell firefighters whether or not its own rails were electrified? Who, in theory, was minding the store?
And it is not as if this is the first incident of smoke or fire in the Metro system. According to NBC News Channel 4, Metro’s most recent quarterly safety report “showed 86 incidents of smoke or fire” in 2013 alone and 85 such incidents through the first eight months of 2014!
NTSB investigator Michael Flanigan spoke to reporters on Monday night, saying that an electrical “arcing” involving the high voltage third rail was the culprit: “The third rail is high-voltage direct current, and if that current starts arcing to another conductor that it is not designed to conduct with, you get a flash. In certain cases, that arc can start sort of feeding on itself, and it actually generates gases that are more conductive.” That begs the question: What exactly went wrong? Was it Metro’s failure to properly maintain and inspect its aging equipment? It cannot be said that this is a common occurrence by any stretch of the imagination. And there was no extraordinary act of God or act of nature that triggered the arcing.
Simply described, an arc-fault occurs when loose or corroded connections make intermittent contact and cause sparking or arcing between the connections. This translates into heat, which will break down the insulation of the wire and can trigger an electrical fire. An arc-fault is an unintentional discharge of electricity in a circuit. Arcing exists in two basic varieties. Natural, or normally occurring arcing, takes place whenever a light, a vacuum cleaner, or any motor driven appliance is turned on. Unsafe arc-faults occur either as series or parallel faults in wire, electrical devices, or connected loads. Arcing faults can reach extraordinarily high temperatures – upwards of 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heating of surrounding materials creates a carbon remnant that acts as a high impedance conductor. As the carbon path extends, the by-products of the arc increase the available fuel source, magnifying the likelihood of a fire.
Given that Metro did not intentionally create this unsafe arcing activity, it seems most likely instead that the fault (no pun intended) lies in the lack of maintenance and inspection. If these tracks were properly maintained and properly inspected, this incident more likely than not would not have occurred. And if this is the case, then this writer hopes that all of those injured or killed by this avoidable tragedy will seek full recompense from Metro.
Attorney Peter Grenier has handled numerous cases against WMATA/Metro, and has collected more than $20 million in verdicts and settlements against WMATA over the years. This includes, notably, the largest single case in history against WMATA, resulting in a $14 million settlement in a wrongful death case. You can reach Mr. Grenier, of Grenier Law Group, at 202-768-9600, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. His firm’s website is http://www.grenierlawgroup.com.