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On Jan. 12, 2015, Carol Inman Glover died from smoke inhalation after an arcing insulator suffused the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station with noxious fumes. She was 61 years old and a grandmother. Additionally, more than 80 other riders were injured that day, and the incident resulted in a series of investigations. In October, the Federal Transit Administration assumed unprecedented oversight responsibilities for Metro.
On Tuesday, lawyers from two firms plan to file more than 80 individual civil suits against Metro related to last year’s fatal incident. In a joint statement from Cohen & Cohen and Ashcraft & Gerel released this afternoon, the firms say Metro “has not indicated a willingness to reasonably resolve these claims prior to engaging in formal litigation” and that the public “deserves answers regarding this tragedy.” Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel said the transit agency does not comment on active or pending litigation as a matter of policy.
Metro is also set to get an even greater degree of oversight from the FTA beginning this week. Acting Administrator Therese McMillan, who has been working in partnership with new Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld to improve the system, said in a statement that “FTA is moving from periodic to daily and unannounced inspections” throughout Metrorail. “In addition, FTA will soon close the first batch of accident investigation reports assumed from the [DMV tri-state oversight committee] and expects to issue additional safety directives to [Metro] during 2016 resulting in more corrective actions,” she continued. A website created by FTA to monitor Metro’s progress on implementing over 90 “corrective actions” lists only two that may imminently be approved.
In an email exchange with City Desk earlier today about the steps Metro has taken to improve safety since last year, Stessel said the transit agency identified 14 “early-action” safety items after the smoke incident that were completed in advance of formal recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board; of the 14, eleven have been completed, and some, such as the replacement of roughly 88,000 tunnel lights, are ongoing. “Working with [FTA], Metro has an action plan to respond to each safety finding, as well as all NTSB recommendations,” Stessel wrote. “Coordination has improved with emergency responders, including a new fire department liaison stationed in Metro’s rail operations control center. We have also stepped up the training that Metro provides to emergency responders in every part of the region,” such as full-scale drills at certain stations like Forest Glen and Greenbelt.
Stessel added that Metro has repaired certain tunnel ventilation systems (thought to be a risk for smoke incidents) and has provided new training for ROCC staff to ensure smoke can be cleared from stations and tunnels quickly. On the subject of crimes committed throughout Metro that have recently made headlines, the spokesperson noted that “Part 1” crimes (for example, homicides and assaults) in 2015 were the lowest they had been since 2007, except for 2014, “which was an exceptionally good year.”
A media event regarding the lawsuits is scheduled to take place tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. at the National Press Club.
Update 01/12/16: At a press conference Tuesday morning, attorneys for the 87 clients represented in the lawsuits clarified that they’ll be filed in D.C. Superior Court today and that they are not a class action. Although Metro had offered compensation to certain survivors, Ashcraft & Gerel lawyer Joe Musso said the amounts were diminutive (he said he could not discuss the specific figures). Asked by a reporter about the potential public perception of ambulance-chasing, Musso responded: “One of the purposes of the lawsuits is to make Metro safer; if they’re held accountable…it puts their feet to the fire, and forces them to take corrective actions. I think anyone should feel the people trapped on the train should be compensated for their injuries—this was a completely avoidable incident.”
Two people who were on the Yellow Line train a year ago today, Dennean Baker and Jonathan Rogers, spoke of that afternoon’s horrors. Still, Cohen & Cohen attorney Kim Brooks-Rodney, who represented the family of a decedent in the fatal 2009 Red Line crash and served as Metro’s assistant general counsel before that, declined to share the age-range or other identifying information about the 87 plaintiffs. She did list off a long series of injuries allegedly suffered by these individuals including “smoke inhalation, asthma, pnemonia, shortness of breath, lung pain, anxiety, PSTD, claustrophobia, nightmares, and forgetfulness” among other physical and mental symptoms.
“The purpose of the lawsuit is to try, frankly, to push Metro to tells us what’s in the smoke so proper treatment plans can be developed for our clients,” Brooks-Rodney explained. “I think [Metro] knows enough that they can step forward and say to the community that the fire and smoke that took place a year ago today, ‘That’s our fault.'”
On Monday, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who did not occupy his current role a year ago, issued a letter to riders in which he reiterated his commitment to improving the transit system’s safety: “The first executive I am recruiting is a new Chief Safety Officer, responsible for day-to-day oversight but, more importantly, reinforcing a stronger safety culture throughout Metro.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery