One Metro transit train smashed into the rear of another at the height of the capital city's Monday evening rush hour, killing at least four people and injuring scores of others as cars of the trailing train jackknifed violently into the air and fell atop the first.
Cars of both trains were ripped open and smashed together, and District of Columbia fire spokesman Alan Etter said crews had to cut some people out of what he described as a "mass casualty event." Rescue workers propped steel ladders up to the upper train cars to help survivors escape. Seats from the smashed cars had spilled out onto the track.
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said four were dead. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin said rescue workers treated 70 people at the scene and sent some of them to local hospitals, two with life-threatening injuries. A Metro official said the dead included the female operator of the trailing train. Her name was not immediately released.
The crash around 5 p.m. EDT 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 border in northeast Washington.
Metro chief John Catoe said the first train was stopped on the tracks, waiting for another to clear the station ahead, when the trailing train plowed into it from behind. Each train had six cars and was capable of holding as many as 1,200 people.
Officials had no explanation for the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board took charge of the investigation and sent a team to the site of the worst accident in the Metro system's 33-year history.
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 the first rescuers to arrive had to use the "jaws of life" to pry open a wire fence along rail line to get to the train.
Webber 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.
Passenger Jodie Wickett, a nurse, told CNN she was seated on one train, sending text messages on her phone, when she felt the impact. She said she sent a message to someone that it felt like the train had hit a bump.
"From that point on, it happened so fast, I flew out of the seat and hit my head." Wickett said she stayed at the scene and tried to help. She said "people are just in very bad shape."
"The people that were hurt, the ones that could speak, were calling back as we called out to them," she said. "Lots of people were upset and crying, but there were no screams."
One man said he was riding a bicycle across a bridge over the Metro tracks when the sound of the collision got his attention.
"I didn't see any panic," Barry Student said. "The whole situation was so surreal."
Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said less than two hours after the crash that federal authorities had no indication of any terrorism connection.
"I don't know the reason for this accident," Metro's Catoe said. "I would still say the system is safe, but we've had an incident."
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 underneath 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 in a severe snowstorm from Washington National Airport across the Potomac River. The plane crash killed 78 people.