What un­folded in the fate­ful hours be­fore a sys­temwide clo­sure

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY FAIZ SID­DIQUI AND MAR­TINE POW­ERS

Metro had been in a down­ward spi­ral for years, but the Jan­uary 2015 L’En­fant Plaza smoke calamity brought things to a head. Carol Glover, a 61­year­old grand­mother from Alexandria, Va., died on the smoke­filled train, and dozens of rid­ers were in­jured. Elec­tri­cal arc­ing in­ci­dents like the one that con­trib­uted to the L’En­fant calamity con­tin­ued. But when Metro sent out a mes­sage at 4:35 p.m. on March 15, 2016, that the en­tire rail sys­tem would shut­ter that even­ing be­cause of ur­gent safety con­cerns, it was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for the agency. Be­hind the scenes, the an­nounce­ment was the cul­mi­na­tion of a day and a half of soul­search­ing in­side Metro, as the agency’s barely tested gen­eral man­ager held hur­ried con­ver­sa­tions with staff, lo­cal lead­ers and his own fam­ily to fig­ure out what to do. This is a look at how the de­ci­sion un­folded.

The play­ers Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld Metro board Chair­man Jack Evans Lynn Bow­er­sox, Metro as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for cus­tomer ser­vice Metro spokesman Dan Stes­sel Metro board mem­ber Jim Cor­co­ran Leif Dorm­sjo, direc­tor of the Dis­trict Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion and Metro board mem­ber John Fal­ci­c­chio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser Rep. Ger­ald E. Connolly (D-Va.) Kathryn Thom­son, gen­eral coun­sel to the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion

Robert Mc­Cart­ney, Washington Post se­nior re­gional cor­re­spon­dent

Monday, March 14, 2016, 4:30 a.m. There’s a fire on the tracks near McPher­son Square. Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J.

Wiede­feld is at his apart­ment near Union Sta­tion. Four months into his new job at Metro, he’s still learn­ing peo­ple’s names at the agency.

Wiede­feld: Early Monday morn­ing, around 4:30 or so, my pager goes off that there’s a rail dis­rup­tion con­fer­ence call. Dan Stes­sel, Metro spokesman: When­ever we have a ma­jor in­ci­dent or ser­vice dis­rup­tion, the ROCC [Metro’s Rail Oper­a­tions Con­trol Cen­ter, akin to the air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem] sends out an au­to­mated no­ti­fi­ca­tion that’s able to hit 50 or more peo­ple at one time. … It makes a noise [on] an iPhone, lit­er­ally the least pleas­ant, most harsh thing — a sub­ma­rine horn. Wiede­feld: I’m on the phone, I’m read­ing what’s go­ing on, I’m ask­ing, touch­ing base with ev­ery­one, whether it’s the po­lice, whether it’s the bus peo­ple … “What are we do­ing to get out com­mu­ni­ca­tions?” I’m pretty much run­ning on the fly get­ting things to­gether to get out. Metro board Chair­man Jack Evans: Paul re­ported to us that there was a fire in­ci­dent at one of the Metro stops, McPher­son Square. It oc­curred at like 4 in the morn­ing, so there were no pas­sen­gers on the trains. But it was al­most iden­ti­cal to the in­ci­dent that oc­curred when Carol Glover was on the train.

Wiede­feld: I think Dan picked me up from my apart­ment and we went right over to the sta­tion — a lot of press was there out­side. At that time we had shut down three lines. We were putting in bus bridges. I told them I needed to go down and see what I had first.

Wiede­feld: I’m walk­ing down, I see where the foam is that put out the flame. … I see charred ca­bling, I see some melted metal. It has a charred smell. I’m phys­i­cally on my knees … look­ing un­der the third rail to see if there’s any­thing there, just to get a sense of it. … What was run­ning through my head is look­ing at that and think­ing, “God for­bid, an hour later, what would this look like with trains run­ning?”

Wiede­feld sets up a “mini cri­sis room” at Metro head­quar­ters, call­ing in mem­bers of his staff and pep­per­ing them with ques­tions about the cause of the McPher­son fire.

Wiede­feld: “Explain to me, how did we get here? What things got us to that point that I’m see­ing what I just saw? Show me, prove to me, that that’s not gonna hap­pen some­where else.” … They can’t give me im­me­di­ate an­swers, they’re giv­ing me dif­fer­ent an­swers, they have dif­fer­ent the­o­ries.

Lynn Bow­er­sox, Metro as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for cus­tomer ser­vice: The [fire] in­ci­dents had oc­curred be­fore. And when I con­veyed that to him that this was a re­peat, I could tell that his an­ten­nae re­ally went up.

On Monday af­ter­noon, Wiede­feld drives home to his fam­ily’s house in Tow­son, Md.

Wiede­feld: … [I] was with my wife for about an hour — ba­si­cally sort of walked her through it. You gotta remember my mind-set at the time, I’m new at the job, rel­a­tively new, a few months in. … We’re gonna do some­thing that prob­a­bly has the po­ten­tial of me los­ing my job — but I’ve gotta do it. I wanted a lit­tle bit of the com­fort back with some­one that I’m close to. I told my wife, to­mor­row’s gonna ei­ther be a very short day or a very long day. Bow­er­sox: It was 7, 7:30 that even­ing as I’m walk­ing out of [Metro head­quar­ters] … I get a call. [Wiede­feld] says, “I’m not com­fort­able with what I’m see­ing; we need to re­con­vene.”

Wiede­feld: I called a meet­ing at 8 or 9 at night. A fo­cus group of some highly tech­ni­cal peo­ple, some out­side con­trac­tors that we had on board. … I asked, I’m not sure to any­one in par­tic­u­lar, “What if this had oc­curred when a train was go­ing by?” And the an­swer was cat­a­strophic.

When of­fi­cials say the fire was sim­i­lar to the L’En­fant in­ci­dent a year ear­lier, here’s what they mean: On Jan. 12, 2015, a fire erupted when elec­tric­ity es­caped from a “jumper cable” link­ing a gap in the third rail. Smoke poured into a rail tun­nel, and a six­car Yel­low Line train stalled on the tracks, be­com­ing en­veloped in nox­ious fumes.

Wiede­feld: Ba­si­cally I said, you know, “You all need to talk me off the ledge here be­cause I’m about to shut this thing down.”

Stes­sel: For peo­ple who have been here, who were around that ta­ble, it was sur­real. Just this at­mos­phere of se­ri­ous­ness, right when Paul said, “Talk me down, guys, cause oth­er­wise this thing’s gonna be closed.”

Wiede­feld: I just went to the apart­ment and tried to get some sleep. … I was think­ing, this is some­thing that I’ve gotta com­mit to un­less they can con­vince me dif­fer­ently. I can’t wa­ver based on other fac­tors. It’s the mid­dle of the night, and you’re think­ing all kinds of things.

Tues­day, March 15. Wiede­feld ar­rives early to Metro head­quar­ters and meets with staff to get their fi­nal as­sess­ments. He is sched­uled to give a noon speech at the Com­mit­tee for Dulles, where he is in­tro­duced by Jim Cor­co­ran, Metro board mem­ber and pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Fair­fax County Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Wiede­feld: They had sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple there, so ba­si­cally I said I’ll com­mit … So I went out there, and, in fact, one of my board mem­bers in­tro­duced me. And I gave a brief speech.

Cor­co­ran: I knew that some­thing was up, only be­cause I talked to Paul that day at lunch.

Wiede­feld: I was try­ing to hold it to­gether. You know, I was work­ing on very lit­tle sleep. It was de­cided to get in front of the board and give them a chance to un­der­stand it and the grav­ity of what I was about to explain to them.

Evans: Paul out­lined the sit­u­a­tion … If we closed the sys­tem down, he could [in­spect the en­tire sys­tem] within 24 hours; if not, it would take a week to do all the in­spec­tions.

Cor­co­ran: There was con­ver­sa­tion about, “Is this course of ac­tion the right course of ac­tion? Is this nec­es­sary? Is there an­other way around this? Could we do this overnight? Could we do it on a more lim­ited ba­sis?”

Evans: On the call, there were var­i­ous dif­fer­ent opin­ions. Mine was to shut the sys­tem down. Other board mem­bers weren’t so sure.

Cor­co­ran: It was go­ing to have a tremen­dous im­pact on peo­ple’s com­mut­ing lives. … There was the fi­nan­cial risk. It was the risk of los­ing rid­ers. It was the risk of, “What are we gonna find and what are we gonna do if we find some­thing that doesn’t al­low us to re­open?” On the other side of the equa­tion, “What if we don’t do this and some­thing hap­pens?”

Evans: Af­ter a spir­ited dis­cus­sion of maybe 20 min­utes or so, and I remember this distinctly, I said “Paul, what do you wanna do?”

Wiede­feld: In a very quiet man­ager [voice] I said, “I’m gonna shut down the sys­tem.”

Email from Bow­er­sox to Stes­sel, 2:46 p.m.: “Get ready — an­nounce at 5 clo­sure for 24 hours be­gin­ning at mid­night tonight. In­spect then any fixes may re­quire ad­di­tional po­ten­tial out­ages. Start pre­par­ing re­lease.”

John Fal­ci­c­chio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser: It was a lit­tle bit of a head-scratch­ing mo­ment when the news first came … I remember the ques­tion that folks had was, if it’s that bad, why is it okay for peo­ple to take Metro home that day? I don’t know that we had a sense of what ex­actly trig­gered the shut­down, be­cause that was such a dra­matic step at that point.

Evans: We had just trans­ported that morn­ing 350,000 peo­ple into the city, and if you close Metro right this mo­ment, there was no way you were gonna get 350,000 peo­ple home. I mean, peo­ple would be walk­ing across the bridges, you wouldn’t be able to get in taxis, Lyfts, Ubers, buses, to get out of here — you would cause grid­lock. The de­ci­sion was made to send out a warn­ing.

Bob Mc­Cart­ney, se­nior re­gional cor­re­spon­dent The Washington Post: I got a phone call from some­one who had been on the call where Wiede­feld had briefed peo­ple. … The first re­ac­tion was, “Oh, this is gonna cause such a mess to­mor­row with the traf­fic.” And the sec­ond re­ac­tion was, “Boy, Metro must be in much worse shape than we re­al­ized, if he thinks this is nec­es­sary.”

An aide handed Rep. Ger­ald E. Connolly a note on the House floor. He needed to call Wiede­feld. Right away.

Connolly: It was a brief con­ver­sa­tion. … I wasn’t en­tirely sur­prised, be­cause things had been al­lowed to de­te­ri­o­rate so badly. There were gen­uine safety con­cerns through­out the sys­tem.

Kathryn Thom­son, former gen­eral coun­sel for the U.S. Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment: My per­sonal re­ac­tion was, “This is great. There’s some­body who’s in charge and de­ci­sive about mak­ing de­ci­sions that are im­por­tant to the safety of the sys­tem.” That was some­thing we re­ally hadn’t seen be­fore.

Connolly: I did make the point with [Wiede­feld]: “This can’t be the an­swer long-term. You get to do this once. But I don’t think you get to do this again, at least with any cred­i­bil­ity.”

Leif A. Dorm­sjo, direc­tor of the Dis­trict Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, is on a beach 80 miles south of Can­cun, in the mid­dle of his hon­ey­moon. He takes a break from read­ing a book on his Kin­dle, and glances at his phone.

Dorm­sjo: I looked at my phone and saw a record num­ber of text mes­sages. And as I opened up my iPad and shut down my Kin­dle — which I had been re­ally en­joy­ing all that week on my hon­ey­moon, which I took a year late be­cause of my com­mit­ments to pub­lic ser­vice. My wife had long waited for us to get away to­gether. I opened up The Washington Post … [and saw] what was go­ing on with Metro. And I felt dou­bly blessed to be on my hon­ey­moon with my lov­ing wife, and to not be in Washington, D.C.

Mc­Cart­ney: That night we got an inkling that Bowser wasn’t happy, [be­cause] her re­sponse was some­thing like, you know, “We wish we’d been brought in ear­lier,” or some­thing like that. And the next day we re­al­ized how re­ally an­noyed she was that this hap­pened, be­cause it just af­fected her gov­ern­ment so much, and her busi­nesses and res­i­dents so much — more than any­body else.

Fal­ci­c­chio: I think any elected of­fi­cial re­flects the sen­ti­ments of their res­i­dents. And any con­cerns or frus­tra­tions that we might have ex­pressed at the time was prob­a­bly a re­flec­tion of some of the things we were hear­ing from res­i­dents — about, one, was it safe to get on Metro this af­ter­noon? And, two, what are we go­ing to do to­mor­row?

Wed­nes­day, March 16. Metro is closed for the en­tire day, but the fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­mains open. Connolly took his usual morn­ing com­mute, driv­ing with one of his staffers on In­ter­state 66 from Vir­ginia to the U.S. Capi­tol.

Connolly: When I hit the D.C. bor­der, I remember that it was just a night­mare. Ev­ery­thing was much more con­gested, es­pe­cially down­town. All of us no­ticed how it put a bur­den on traf­fic.

Thom­son: There was a Women’s His­tory Month event at the White House … I got a car from DOT to drop me off, but I couldn’t get back from down­town to save my life. I would nor­mally have taken Metro, but of course there was no Metro. There were no taxis. The Ubers were tak­ing for­ever to come. So I walked — the good ol’-fash­ioned trans­porta­tion method. It took 40 min­utes.

Connolly: I think peo­ple ap­proached that morn­ing with a cer­tain amount of fa­tal­ism that has crept into a lot of com­muters’ views of Metro. … Ex­pec­ta­tions are lower, peo­ple ex­pect de­lays, and while this was the most dras­tic ac­tion, I think a lot of peo­ple were ex­pect­ing that, sooner or later, some­thing like this might have to hap­pen.

Wiede­feld: We had set up a war room where all the re­ports would come in with things all over the walls of 22 zones and where they were, where the ca­bles were and what had been in­spected, and lit­er­ally peo­ple were tak­ing cell­phone pho­tos and send­ing the re­ports in to this team so they could keep rolling to man­age this thing.

Thom­son: [The Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion] was not present dur­ing those in­spec­tions … and we prob­a­bly should have been. … FTA was try­ing to get its sea legs on what is ef­fec­tive over­sight, and this shut­down came in the mid­dle of that process.

Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion An­thony Foxx ap­pears be­fore a Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee just af­ter 2:30 p.m. on the day of the shut­down for a pre­vi­ously sched­uled hear­ing. “We’ll tough it out for one day,” says Sen. Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski (D­Md.), “but is this change go­ing to be re­li­able? Is it go­ing to be sus­tain­able? Is it go­ing to stick?” Fal­ci­c­chio: Af­ter the morn­ing went as nor­mal as it could be with the Metro shut­down, I think the ques­tion was, “Are we go­ing to have to do this for more than one day? What’s the rem­edy that has to hap­pen to get it where it needs to be?”

In the end, the shut­down wasn’t the com­muter night­mare the re­gion had en­vi­sioned. To be sure, get­ting around was a strug­gle, but the re­gion avoided com­plete grid­lock. Wiede­feld was lauded for his swift ac­tion to ad­dress se­ri­ous safety de­fi­cien­cies, but his moves have since be­come the sub­ject of scorn for some rid­ers, who say the ser­vice dis­rup­tions are driv­ing them away from the sys­tem.

Thom­son: When it was over, no one at DOT thought, “Aha, ev­ery­thing’s re­solved and we’re good to go.”

Dorm­sjo: It was a big wake-up call; I think it’s been cer­tainly some­thing that has mo­ti­vated the pub­lic lead­ers and man­age­ment team here in WMATA to pre­vent that from ever hap­pen­ing again.

Connolly: The shut­down con­firmed what I already be­lieved about Wiede­feld, which is that he is will­ing to make difficult de­ci­sions. He is will­ing to take the heat. He’s done that with per­son­nel, with fi­nances, with oper­a­tions, SafeTrack. Not all of that is per­fect, but he is try­ing to play catch-up for de­ferred de­ci­sions.

Wiede­feld: This event ba­si­cally put in fo­cus for me that I’ve got to re­ally start to do what I think is right — I’ve gotta go, I’ve just gotta start go­ing on things. I would have got­ten there. But clearly this said to me, we are not gonna do things the way we’ve done ’em in the past.

Mc­Cart­ney: Peo­ple still talk about it. “Oh yeah, he’s the guy who shut down the sys­tem.” It got at­ten­tion around the world.

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

A sign an­nounces a 29-hour shut­down for an emer­gency safety in­ves­ti­ga­tion of power ca­bling in the en­tire Metro sys­tem in Washington on March 16, 2016.

EVAN VUCCI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An aide to Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld holds up a photo of a track dam­aged by fire as Wiede­feld speaks at a news con­fer­ence March 15, 2016, to an­nounce that Metro­rail ser­vice will shut down for a full day on March 16. At cen­ter is Metro board chair­man Jack Evans.

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Evans: “Paul out­lined the sit­u­a­tion … If we closed the sys­tem down, he could [in­spect the en­tire sys­tem] within 24 hours.”

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

March 16 was hec­tic as com­muters looked for buses at Metro sta­tions and the MARC train was the only rail op­tion in Mary­land.

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Wiede­feld: They had sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple there, so ba­si­cally I said I’ll com­mit … So I went out there . . . and I gave a brief speech.”

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