Congress blasts DC Metro over smoke death

Congress blasts DC Metro over smoke death
© file photo

Lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee blasted the Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system on Friday for radio problems that led to a recent fatal smoke incident on one of the agency’s trains. 

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said during a hearing of the panel’s Government Operations Subcommittee that the problems that led to the death of passenger on a smoke-filled train on Metro’s Yellow Line on Jan. 12 were “entirely predictable.” 

“Think about the cause of this tragedy,” Norton said. “Think about the fact that we’re dealing with what everybody would regard as the ABC’s of running a common carrier. Being able to communicate from the ground to the tunnel. Making sure the smoke goes the right way. 

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“My friends, I can think of nothing worse than being smoked to death underground,” Norton continued. “That’s what happened here. The communication problems were entirely predictable." 

Investigators have said the DC Metro smoke incident occurred when a Yellow Line train that was heading toward Northern Virginia filled with smoke after an electrical issue known as an “arcing” incident that halted its progress, trapping passengers in a dark tunnel. One passenger, Alexandria, Va.-resident Carol Glover, died in the incident, and more than 80 people were injured. 

The incident resulted in Metro’s first passenger fatality since a high-profile crash on the Red Line in 2009 that killed nine people and led to widespread changes at the capital-area transit agency.

A passenger who said he mistakenly boarded the disabled Metro train told lawmakers that the Yellow Line operator told passengers to remain on the smoke-filled train because opening the doors would prevent him from moving the train back to a nearby station. 

“Verbatim, the announcement was: ‘Once again customers, please stay calm, please stay calm. We got one train about to get off the platform at L’Enfant Plaza right now as we speak. As soon as this train leaves, I’ll be getting you all back to the platform. Please stay calm. Please do not open the doors. If you open the doors, the train will not move,” passenger Jonathan Rogers told the panel. 

Rogers told lawmakers that he meant to board a train on Metro’s Green Line, which shares tracks with the Yellow Line in downtown Washington, D.C., on Jan. 12. He realized his mistake when the tracks split after L'Enfant Plaza, which is the last shared stop between the two lines and was the last station that was serviced by the disabled train.

Rogers said through tears on Friday that he stopped taking pictures and video of the smoke-filled train to administer CPR to Glover. 

Metro officials told lawmakers that they have been cooperating with federal investigators and implementing changes on their own to boost safety. 

“Metro has provided NTSB investigators with access to conduct several track walks and examine equipment, and we have submitted more than 650 documents containing 7,300 pages of information,” Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board Chairman Mortimer Downey said. 

“As the NTSB continues its review; we are not waiting,” he continued. “Metro has identified and begun to implement 10 early safety actions. Today, we are beginning installation of new signage on the outside of all railcars to clearly identify emergency doors and release handles for first responders who may not be familiar with Metro evacuation procedures. Metro train operators have been given independent authority to operate the air intake systems on their railcars, and the protocols for employees at our rail control center have been streamlined to prevent unnecessary distractions.” 

Republicans on the panel questioned the effectiveness of Metro’s underground radio systems after the Jan. 12 accident. 

“It appears the system works above ground but it doesn’t work below ground,” Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said. 

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department Acting Chief of Operations Edward Mills III said emergency responders who arrived at the station that was closest to the disabled Metro train were not able to confirm if the electricity that powers the subway system was shut off. 

Mills told the panel that emergency responders rushed into the subway tunnel despite the radio problems, which was a violation of the agency’s normal procedures. 

“Their actions violated the department’s written protocols which require confirmation from WMATA that power to the third rail has been shut off before the firefighters are to go onto the tracks,” he said. 

“Yet, once these first responders realized they were dealing with an incredibly serious situation of a train full of passengers stopped in a tunnel, they did not wait for confirmation,” Mills continued. “Instead, they acted.”  

Mills said emergency personnel had problems with the Metro radio system just days before the fatal smoke incident. 

“We have learned that on January 8, during an FEMS response to an incident at the WMATA L’Enfant Plaza underground station, FEMS experienced radio failures and reported this to WMATA,” he said. “WMATA responded to FEMS that the problem appeared to be the equipment issues within the station. FEMS responders had to use a variety of alternate means of communication, including cell phones and the walkie-talkie function of their radios.” 

Lawmakers were incredulous that radio problems were so widespread after so many upgrades were made to D.C. emergency response systems after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. 

“How is this possible after 14 years and hundreds of millions [of dollars]?” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyCongress rips DC Metro over falsified reports that led to July train derailment DC Metro chief pledges to cut train delays in half Tim Ryan ponders Pelosi challenge MORE (D-Va.) asked.