WASHINGTON — A Washington Metro train slammed into the rear of another during the evening rush hour on Monday, killing at least six people, including the train operator, and injuring at least 76 others in the worst disaster in the 33-year history of Washington's rapid transit system.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty confirmed the six deaths, and fire department officials said more bodies were still on the train.
"We do know there are more bodies on the train," said spokesman Alan Etter of the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. "We don't know how many."
The crash left a grotesque scene, with a car on one train hanging in the air over the other train.
Hundreds of fire and emergency medical personnel rushed to the scene, helping victims and searching the wreckage for hours after the accident.
Witnesses told local television stations that the floor of the second train's lead car had been ripped away in the impact. As the crash occurred at rush hour, many passengers would've been standing.
Both trains were headed in the direction of downtown Washington. John Catoe, the general manager of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, said that the lead train was stopped, "waiting to get the order to (proceed) because of a train stopped at a (station) platform. The next train came up behind it and, for reasons we don't know, (struck) that train."
Catoe said that the dead included the operator of the second train. District of Columbia Fire Chief Dennis Rubin said that of the injured, two were hurt seriously, 12 had moderate injuries and 50 were "pretty much walking wounded."
Fenty and Catoe offered condolences to families of those killed. To all of the victims, Catoe said, "Our deep, heartfelt pain is with you."
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board rushed to the scene to begin an investigation into the accident's cause. Rubin said that FBI agents also had been dispatched to the scene.
The only other accident in which Metro train passengers died happened on Jan. 13, 1982 — Friday the 13th — when a train derailed near a subway stop under the Washington Mall, buckling several cars and killing three passengers. On that same snowy day, an Air Florida passenger jet weighed down by ice on its wings crashed into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff from Washington National Airport.
Monday's accident occurred in broad daylight shortly after 5 p.m. in an area of the where trains operate above ground.
"We don't have a clue," Metro spokeswoman Taryn McNeil said of the accident's cause. She said it could take days or longer before the cause is determined.
Catoe said he hopes to resume limited service on the system's Red Line, Metro's busiest, by Tuesday.
Ambulances had difficulty reaching the crash site, which is in a residential area of Northeast Washington. Dozens of people with minor injuries were treated initially by paramedics and told to walk to a nearby thoroughfare where ambulances were waiting.
More seriously injured passengers were carried out on stretchers.
Rubin said that helicopter paramedic rescue squads flew two seriously injured victims to an area hospital.
Etter said that rescue workers brought in dogs earlier to search some of the train cars.
How the accident happened remains a mystery, given that the Metro system includes layers of safety equipment and signals that prevent trains from getting too close to one another.
Washington has the nation's second busiest rapid transit system after New York, and Metro trains have slammed into one another on at least two other occasions. In 1996, a train operator was killed when a he was operating failed to stop and slammed into an unoccupied train.
In 2004, an out-of-service train rolled backward into a station, striking an in-service train that was stopped at the platform. No one was killed, but 22 people were injured, and investigators later concluded the incident would've been much worse had both trains been carrying passengers. The operator of the out-of-service train was fired.
The 106-mile Metro system, which opened in 1976 with congressional funding, serves the nation's capital and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Ahead of President Barack Obama's inauguration, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that trains filled to capacity could carry up to 900,000 people into the city in an eight-hour period.
Construction has begun on an extension to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, about 25 miles from the nation's capital.
The accident will affect Washington commuters on Tuesday: Metro's Red Line will have limited service, and the parallel MARC commuter train service to Brunswick, Md., will be suspended.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Visit McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington