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Washington subway system hobbled after fatal accident

January 13, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — The transit network in the U.S. capital remained hobbled Tuesday morning following an electrical malfunction that filled a busy subway station with smoke, killing one woman and sending dozens of people to hospitals.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the accident, which happened at the beginning of the Monday afternoon rush hour and led to the first fatality on Washington’s Metro system since a 2009 crash that killed eight passengers and a train operator.

NTSB investigator Michael Flanigon told reporters late Monday night that an electrical “arcing” involving the high-voltage third rail led a train to stop in a tunnel and quickly filled the tunnel with smoke. An arcing occurs when electricity from the third rail comes into contact with another substance that conducts electricity, such as water.

While there was water in the tunnel, Flanigon said the cause of the arcing was not yet known.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene aboard the train as passengers tried to escape the smoke, and many passengers left the train on their own before emergency responders arrived on the scene, Flanigon said. In addition to the woman who died, whose name had not been released as of Tuesday morning, at least one other passenger was in critical condition at a local hospital. Eighty-four people were taken to hospitals, most with smoke inhalation, authorities said.

The accident occurred around 3:30 p.m. Monday on a Virginia-bound yellow line train that had just left the L’Enfant Plaza station in downtown Washington, one of the system’s busiest stations.

The Metrorail system, which connects downtown Washington with the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, carries an average of 721,000 passengers each weekday.

—Smoke and fire are not unusual on the aging subway system, which opened in 1976 and still uses some original rail cars. Metro’s most recent quarterly safety report showed 86 incidents of smoke or fire in 2013 and 85 such incidents through the first eight months of 2014.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols .

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