Yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m. Alexandra Villarreal headed into the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station to take a train home from work. But before she was able to board a train she found herself paralyzed by a terrifying coughing fit.
“It was a really shocking experience,” says Villarreal, who works at the Voice of America headquarters near L’Enfant.
Villarreal was walking on the northbound Yellow and Green Line platform when she spotted a scrum of uniformed officers surrounding someone who was splayed on the ground, the person's legs sticking out between a cop’s. As she got closer to the group it hit her. “Some kind of tear gas or pepper spray,” she says. “It [felt] like tiny pin pricks all in my nose and throat.”
According to Metro spokesman Reggie Woodruff, transit police officers had ordered some disorderly passengers to leave the station. When one of them refused and then physically resisted arrest, an officer used pepper spray to subdue him. "The suspect received medical treatment for the pepper spray at a local hospital and was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest," says Woodruff.
As for Villarreal, she started coughing uncontrollably, as did the rest of the riders around her. People tried to cover their mouths with their scarves and coats. Villarreal headed back toward the escalator she’d come from and started warning people walking in the direction of the police to be careful.
“Then it hits them, and they start coughing, too.”
Villarreal jumped on the next Yellow Line train that arrived, but she continued to cough and gag for another ten minutes. She didn’t realize it until later, but a co-worker of hers had arrived on the same platform about 15 minutes after Villarreal had left.
Elizabeth Fisher says she, too, was gripped by a coughing fit along with her fellow riders around 4:15 p.m. on the very same platform. Hers was all the more confusing because there were no police or Metro employees on the platform at that point.
“I could hardly breathe,” Fisher says. “A couple people right next to me also started coughing, and we all kind of looked at each other like, ‘what is going on?’”
It was five minutes before she got her breathing under control with the help of a bottle of water. She didn’t understand what had happened until Villarreal shared her experience.
Mike Lastort, who works for the Department of Health & Human Services, says when he entered the L'Enfant station around the same time he saw transit police officers taking a young man out of the station in handcuffs. When he reached the platform his eyes started to burn and he began to cough. There he spotted another young man being escorted out in handcuffs. Lastort says he also saw a transit officer throwing up on the platform, presumably because of the fumes, while a colleague stood over him.
Transit police have had a robust presence inside the L’Enfant station since a man was attacked by teenagers there earlier this month and a video subsequently appeared on YouTube. Officers have used pepper spray in the past and are instructed to use their judgment on a case-by-case basis. After all, Metro stations and trains are enclosed spaces.
If you witnessed yesterday’s incident or its aftermath, send us an email.