Originally published June 22, 2009 at 4:23 p.m., updated June 23, 2009 at 7:05 a.m.
U.S. The worst accident in the 33-year history of Washington, D.C.'s subway system is under investigation by authorities trying to determine why a train plowed into the rear of another, killing at least seven people and injuring scores of others.
The District of Columbia Fire Department reported on its Web site early Tuesday that nine people had been killed, but Mayor Adrian Fenty said later that seven fatalities were confirmed. Scores of other people were injured, some seriously, in the accident along a part of Metro system track that carries passengers from the District of Columbia into suburban Maryland.
Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators would cast a wide net, including checking operator procedures and track signals, interviewing witnesses and inspecting the tracks themselves. She said officials also were searching the wreckage for devices on the trains that record operating speeds and commands.
"It is a scene of real devastation," Hersman said of the crash, which ripped open passenger cars when the trains smashed together. More details were expected at a Tuesday morning news conference.
During the evening rush hour, one train was stopped on the tracks waiting for another to clear the station ahead, when a trailing train plowed into it from behind, Metro general manager John Catoe said.
Catoe said an automated computer system used to run trains was supposed to keep them apart, but it was not clear whether the system was in use when the crash occurred.
People inside some of the cars were banging on the windows trying to get out, said Jervis Bryant of Upper Marlboro, Md., who was in the area at the time. Bryant said he ran over to help, but couldn't get close enough to reach the passengers. He said some eventually began exiting the trains.
"It's a scene I never thought I would see," said Bryant, who frequently rides the Metro. "It was more frightening to watch and not to be able to help."
More than 200 firefighters from D.C., Maryland and Virginia eventually converged on the scene.
Sabrina Webber, a 45-year-old real estate agent who lives in the neighborhood, said she raced to the scene after hearing a loud boom like a "thunder crash" and then sirens. She said there was no panic among the survivors.
The crash around 5 p.m. took place on the system's red line, Metro's busiest, which runs below ground for much of its length but is at ground level at the accident site near the Maryland state line in northeast Washington.
Officials would not say how fast the train was traveling at the time of the accident. The crash occurred in an area with a sizable distance between rail stations in which trains are allowed to travel at higher speeds, Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said.
Each train had six cars and was capable of holding as many as 1,200 people. Hersman said the trains were bound for downtown. That would mean they were less likely to be filled during the afternoon rush hour.
The trains had pulled out of the Takoma Park station and were headed in the direction of the Fort Totten station.
The only other time in Metrorail's 33-year history that there were passenger fatalities was on Jan. 13, 1982, when three people died as a result of a derailment beneath downtown. That was a day of disaster in the capital: Shortly before the subway crash, an Air Florida plane slammed into the 14th Street Bridge immediately after takeoff from Washington National Airport across the Potomac River. The plane crash, during a severe snowstorm, killed 78 people.
In January 2007, a subway train derailed in downtown Washington, sending 20 people to the hospital and prompting the rescue of 60 others from the tunnel. In November 2006, two Metro track workers were struck and killed by an out-of-service train. An investigation found that the train operator failed to follow safety procedures. Another Metro worker was struck and killed in May 2006.