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Rescuers hampered by poor communications in D.C. Metro subway breakdown

| Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, 9:51 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Passengers were still pleading for rescue 27 minutes after smoke filled their subway cars under the nation's capital, as communications breakdowns among the train's operator, his command center and firefighters left help waiting at a station just 800 feet away, a preliminary official timeline suggested Thursday.

First responders were at the scene but couldn't safely leave the Metro platform because they could not get a clear answer on whether someone could be electrocuted by the third rail that powers the trains, authorities said.

One woman died and more than 80 were sickened Monday when some sort of electrical malfunction on the tracks stopped the train as it traveled toward Virginia, shortly after it left the busy L'Enfant Plaza station in downtown Washington.

Carol Glover of Alexandria, Va., succumbed to acute respiratory failure because of smoke exposure, according to Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Her death was ruled accidental, Fields said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and Metro officials have declined to comment, leaving the city and passengers to fill in what details are publicly known.

The city's preliminary timeline confirmed that passengers waited more than a half-hour for help, and that more than an hour passed before an ambulance began carrying the dying woman to a hospital. It shows firefighters waited at the station for 13 minutes before Metro officials confirmed people were trapped and that the electrified third rail had been shut down, reducing the risk of an orderly evacuation.

Passengers, meanwhile, said the train's operator told them every three or four minutes to stay put, that the problems were temporary and that the train would be moving back into the station, but aside from several lurches, it didn't move much at all.

“Those people should not have been trapped like rats in a subway car filling with smoke,” said attorney Kim Brooks-Rodney, announcing a lawsuit that will accuse the Metro transit agency of negligent maintenance, inspection and response.

“Something broke down, and we're going to find out what it is,” she said.

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