Testimony shows many were in a haze while train was stranded
The National Transportation Safety Board doesn’t hold trials. When its hearings are done, the chairman doesn’t stand and deliver a verdict, pronouncing a defendant guilty.
In fact, there’s no defendant. But the court of public opinion is a bit different, and some judgments can be made in the case of Metro riders vs. the transit authority.
The hearing testimony and the transcripts of interviews with participants in the Jan. 12 calamity that left 61-year-old Carol Glover of Alexandria dead reveal this: Nobody had a clear idea what anybody else was doing as smoke filled the L’Enfant Plaza station.
Time after time in the written testimony, you read about Metro employees and D.C. firefighters acting on their training and working to protect people.
Rarely do so many people who are trying to do the right thing individually achieve such a poor result collectively.
Let’s look at one facet of that very complex scene to see how well-meaning people could operate at cross-purposes because they saw only part of the picture: Why couldn’t the Yellow Line train back out of the tunnel and return its passengers to the L’Enfant Plaza platform?
Operator James Curley had stopped his Yellow Line train when he couldn’t see any farther, and smoke began to fill his train. He followed procedure and spent two minutes getting from the front to the rear of the train with the intention of reversing course to L’Enfant Plaza.
While Curley and the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) were talking, controllers also were attempting to clear the train behind him from the L’Enfant Plaza platform. Transit police on the platform, trying to protect the people on the second train, had everyone aboard evacuate, including anyone who could move the train.
Controllers in the ROCC didn’t seem to know what was occurring on the platform— at least initially — because they repeatedly tried to contact the empty train.
This past week, Metro officials confirmed that the train partially blocking the platform would not have prevented Curley from moving his own train backward for an evacuation.
To do so, Curley needed the control center’s help, and he said in his NTSB interview a fewdays after the incident that he was in “constant communication” with the control center. (This part of the communications system appears to have worked fine.)
But the control center couldn’t move the train. Trains haven’t been under automatic control since the Red Line crash in 2009. Curley had to move the train. At that early moment, he felt that all he needed was “permission” from the controllers.
Their monitors still showed power to the third rail. But that moment— if it really existed— would slip away. Metro Deputy General-Manager Rob Troup said last week that the cable fire in the tunnel left the third rail with insufficient power to move the train, something that wasn’t detected at the time.
The control room apparently was enveloped in its own haze about what was happening with the platform, the tunnel and the third rail.
“We didn’t know who was doing what,” Fannie Smith, a rail operations control supervisor, told investigators.
In the midst of all this confusion, she said, “We had lost control.”
It became very hard to follow procedure “because we had so much going on at one time,” Smith said.
Curley, with a train full of gasping passengers behind him, was troubleshooting a new problem: The brakes had locked. So with the ROCC’s permission, he left the cab to check them.
But time flies when you’re choking, and some riders were getting impatient. Curley said he could see people outside the train guiding themselves along the catwalk by the light of their cellphones. These riders had decided to take their chances in the tunnel rather than follow Metro’s standard procedure and await rescue.
Whatever you think about the obvious hazards of this mutiny, it turned out that the escaping passengers did fine. But with them wandering in the tunnel, it was clear to Curley that his train would need to be abandoned. By the time he returned from checking the brakes, rescuers from L’Enfant Plaza already had begun the full evacuation after the power had been brought down completely.
The testimony from Curley and others indicates that throughout the emergency, he was working with two kinds of information: bad and none.
Investigators would ask him if, under the dire circumstances he confronted, he had thought about breaking Metro’s rules to move forward with the rescue.
“I had thought about that,” he said, “but I didn’t.”
The investigation isn’t over. There are gaps and conflicts in the testimony. But the evidence is strong that Metro’s safety procedures are inadequate to protect riders. Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail email@example.com.