Metro’s response to smoke incident under fire

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Smoke fills a southbound Yellow line car near L’Enfant Plaza station on Jan. 12 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Litwin
Smoke fills a southbound Yellow line car near L’Enfant Plaza station on Jan. 12 in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Andrew Litwin

“Shocking” is how daily Metro rider Marsha Kaufman, 60, described her initial reaction to hearing about the smoke incident on Monday, Feb. 12 near the L’Enfant Plaza station that killed one passenger and sent more than 80 others to area hospitals.

The incident was Metro’s first passenger fatality since a 2009 Red Line crash between Takoma and Fort Totten that killed nine and injured 80.


Kaufman commutes from Union Station to East Falls Church and said she thinks Metro is a relatively safe system. However, she has serious concerns about communication failures that reportedly occurred during Metro’s response that left passengers stuck in smoke-filled train cars for more than 30 minutes while Carol Glover, 61, a senior business analyst from Alexandria, was dying from acute respiratory failure due to smoke exposure.

Kaufman said she often experiences broken speakers riding the system and wonders what would happen if her train car filled with smoke and the speakers didn’t work properly so she couldn’t hear the muffled instructions from the train operator.

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“You have to trust that people who work for Metro are doing everything possible that they can to ensure that it is a safe system,” said Kaufman, director of collaborations at the American Medical Association and past president of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria.

Jon Halperin, 36, a cyber-security engineer at SRA International and frequent Metro rider, doesn’t trust the leadership or employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and said he was not surprised when he heard about the deadly incident.


“I didn’t know it was that big a deal. They have such a poor history of being able to provide quality and consistent service I thought it was another hiccup,” said Halperin of his first reaction. “Then when I read the news, I realized it was a real emergency. The injury numbers are staggering, and the fact that Metro refuses to discuss anything, but other organizations have made statements, makes it look like Metro cares more about being caught in the obvious upcoming lawsuit than about its riders.”

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel defended the agency’s lack of public disclosure regarding the incident and response, saying that federal regulations require that all information regarding the investigation flow through the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“We share [Washington, D.C.,] Mayor [Muriel] Bowser’s desire for a public airing of the facts and, to that end, we are cooperating fully with the NTSB investigation, including providing interviews, documents, recordings and access to investigators,” said Stessel.

Halperin said his colleague was on the smoke-filled train and called 911, describing a scene with poor communication from the conductor while passengers choked on toxic smoke.

Richard Sarles, who promised to improve the transit system’s safety culture after taking over as general manager following the 2009 crash, on Friday retired from his $366,000 a year job. His replacement will take over a transit agency that is now part of another NTSB investigation, while still continuing work to implement NTSB’s safety recommendations after the 2009 crash investigation. Metro is also four years into a six-year, $5.5 billion rebuilding program that is supposed to bring the system into a state of good repair after decades of neglected and poor maintenance.

“I think there is a question about whether we have the best safety protocols in place so that when smoke enters a train car we make sure that people get out quickly and safely,” said D.C. City Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “I do have a lot of questions about how WMATA, as well as our first-responder agencies, reacted to the event.”

Silverman sits on the Finance and Revenue Committee, which has oversight of Metro and said that after the incident she consulted with Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who chairs the committee and was appointed to the Metro board of directors this month. They worked on questions about the response.

“I think the council has a role to play in terms of accountability and oversight of WMATA as well as over our other responding agencies,” said Silverman.

Metro is the second busiest rapid transit system in the nation after New York City, with more than 2 million annual trips along six lines to 91 stations on 117 miles of track.

As a frequent Metro rider herself, Silverman said she shares the safety concerns of many area residents who use the system.

“What is tremendously rattling to residents is that a lot of people think they could have been Carol Glover. They could have been that person sitting in that seat in that smoky train car,” said Silverman. “I think that is what is so rattling and disturbing to a lot of residents, including myself. So we need to figure out exactly what happened so we can figure out whether we responded to that situation correctly.”

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