CHICAGO - A fire inside a subway tunnel just north of downtown Chicago injured 19 people and sent billows of heavy smoke into city streets Sunday afternoon, authorities said.
As many as 100 rescue workers responded after a small fire was reported near the underground Red Line tracks around 5 p.m., Chicago Fire Department spokesman Richard Rosado said. The fire involved railroad ties, but the cause of the blaze was under investigation, he said.
"The fire was extinguished within about five minutes," Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said.
Nineteen people were taken to local hospitals, most complaining of respiratory problems, though none suffered life-threatening injures, Rosado said. Five were transported in serious to critical condition, three were in serious to fair and 11 had minor injuries, he said.
When the blaze started, three trains were nearby in subway tunnels. Those trains proceeded to stations and riders were able to disembark and leave the stations, Hosinski said. Trains were then rerouted to elevated tracks as firefighters responded to the blaze, and the power was turned off to seven subway stations.
Train service in both directions had been restored by about 8 p.m., Hosinski said.
Sang Shin, 22, told the Chicago Tribune that he was on a Red Line train Sunday when it stopped between stations and thickening smoke forced passengers around him covered their noses with their shirts.
"Everyone was just wondering what was going on and trying to breathe," Shin said.
It was at least the second fire in a year along the 242 miles of track - some elevated, some underground - that make up the CTA's more than century-old system.
Last July, maintenance materials caught fire in a Chicago subway station, causing heavy black smoke but no injuries. And two years ago, a cable caught fire on elevated tracks.
But perhaps the worst in recent memory happened in July 2006, when a train derailed and sparked a tunnel fire that injured more than 150 people during the height of rush hour. It forced passengers to grope along a wall through the darkened, smoke-filled tunnel to an emergency exit leading to the street.