WASHINGTON — A Metro commuter train smashed into the rear of another at the height of the capital's Monday evening rush hour, killing at least six people and injuring scores as the front end of the trailing train jackknifed into the air and fell atop the first.
Cars of both trains were ripped open and smashed together in the worst accident in Metrorail's 33-year history. District of Columbia fire spokesman Alan Etter said crews had to cut some people out of what he described as a "mass casualty event." Rescuers propped steel ladders up to the upper train cars to help survivors scramble to safety. Seats from the smashed cars spilled out onto the track.
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said six were confirmed dead. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin said rescue workers treated 76 people at the scene and sent some of them to local hospitals, six with critical injuries. A search for further victims continued into the night.
A Metro official said the dead included the operator of the trailing train, identified as Jeanice McMillan of Springfield, Va
Washington City Councilman Jim Graham described the wreckage with a single word: "Horror."
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.
Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said the first train was stopped, waiting for another to clear the station ahead, when the second train plowed into it from behind. It was unclear how many people were aboard.
Riders described chaos. In the train that was struck, passengers said the train had stopped three times in the moments before the crash. After the impact, many passengers had to jump from the side of the train to the ground. Other riders helped lift them down safely.
Tom Baker, 47, a District resident, was in the first car of the train that rear-ended the stopped train.
"You could hear all this crashing and glass breaking," Baker told the Washington Post. "I didn't hear any brakes at all." He said he couldn't gauge how fast the train was moving but said it was traveling at moderate speed. He saw the train lift into the air, he said.
"When the dust settled, the entire front of the train was gone" and riders could see down to the train below them.
More than 200 firefighters from D.C., Maryland and Virginia converged on the scene.
Jervis Bryant, a Prince George's County teacher, told the Baltimore Sun that he heard the collision from a house 2 1/2 blocks away and got to the scene within five minutes.
"We saw the folks banging on the windows trying to get out," he said, referring to the second train.
Rescuers pried the door open, he said, and people streamed out. "They just bum-rushed it."
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 as if 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."
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and has assigned a railroad investigator and two specialists from its office of transportation disaster assistance.
Investigators will probably focus on a failure of Metro's computerized signal system, designed to prevent trains from coming close enough to collide, as well as operator error, according to former Metro officials.
The system relies on electronic relays -- each about the size of a hardcover book -- aboard trains and buried beside the tracks along each line. When a train gets too close to another train, the system is designed to automatically stop the approaching train. It should work whether trains are being operated manually or by computer.
But even if the signal system failed to stop the train, the operator should have intervened and applied emergency brakes, safety experts familiar with Metro's operations told the Post.
The position of the second train after the crash -- the fact that its first car came to rest atop the other train -- indicates that the second train was traveling at high speed. In the section of track where the accident occurred, the speed limit is supposed to be 58 mph. Metro officials would not say how fast the trains were going because of the ongoing NTSB investigation.
President Obama sent condolences to the victims.
"Michelle and I were saddened by the terrible accident in northeast Washington, D.C., today," Obama said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends affected by this tragedy."