Members of Congress say ventilation fans drew smoke into stricken DC subway
Area Congress members briefed on Metro smoke incident.
FILE – In this Jan. 12, 2015 file photo, smoke fills a Washington Metro system subway car near the L’Enfant Plaza station in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Litwin) WASHINGTON – Ventilation fans in Washington’s subway tunnels didn’t work properly during a fatal accident last week in which a train filled with smoke, and fans on the stricken train actually drew smoke inside the cars, members of Congress said Wednesday. One woman died and more than 80 others were hospitalized with smoke inhalation after an electrical malfunction brought a train to a halt inside a tunnel near a busy downtown station.
After being briefed behind closed doors by the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, members of the Washington-area congressional delegation emerged from the meeting to publicly share a few new details about the Jan. 12 incident, in which one passenger died and scores of others were sickened by smoke. “Stepping onto a train car shouldn’t require a leap of faith about your safety,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.). “What happened on the Yellow Line earlier this month was completely unacceptable, and we cannot lose sight of that.” As for ventilation problems, Sen. In addition to the ventilation problems, the lawmakers said they were concerned that encryption of the District fire department’s radios hindered communication with the Metro transit agency. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat who represents the home district of the woman who died, said there were numerous failures that exacerbated the accident. “The death of Carol Glover was an unnecessary tragedy. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said the group was told that after the six-car train encountered smoke in the tunnel and abruptly stopped just south of the L’Enfant Plaza station, the train’s air-intake system was not turned off, meaning it drew smoke into the cars. “We know the ventilation system sucked smoke into the train,” Beyer told reporters after he and other lawmakers were briefed by the NTSB’s Christopher Hart.
He added that “WMATA … has already discovered several items that they feel, based on our investigation thus far, need fixing, and are working on them.” Among them are changes to procedures around vents inside trains and better labeling of emergency exit doors. Investigators have been unable to replicate the configuration of the ventilation fans during the accident, and further study is required to determine what went wrong, Hart said.
The fatal accident was the first on the nation’s second-largest rail transit network since a 2009 crash that killed eight passengers and a train operator. But on Thursday, Metro will announce new procedures that allow the train operator to shut off the fans without contacting the control center during a smoke emergency.
That’s as far as I can go.” After the Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday, Mikulski said: “The 13 of us in the room were all trying to get answers about what happened that horrific day. He noted that the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade first responders’ communication networks since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. According to the lawmakers, the Metrotrail needs improved communications between emergency responders and dispatchers and a better ventilation system. Passengers were on the train for 30 minutes before firefighters arrived, and District officials have said problems communicating with Metro led to delays in evacuating the train. Before Hart agreed to brief the congressional delegation, there had been a clamor for more information about the incident — from Capitol Hill, from D.C.
Among the unanswered questions is whether the arcing occurred because the cables had deteriorated as a result of not being properly maintained by Metro. “We know there was arcing,” Hart said Wednesday. “We don’t know why there was arcing.” Hart said NTSB would look to determine whether it was caused by aging equipment that needed repair. What could they do to save themselves?” There aren’t any quick answers to those questions, nor to the questions of why it took long for D.C. firefighters to get to the station, and why Metro workers kept them from entering the tunnel. At the council hearing Tuesday, members grilled Downs on several issues related to the crisis, including the reported communications problems, Metro’s protocols for cooperating with first responders during such situations and whether train passengers can self-evacuate during emergencies. Downs offered few answers, instead echoing what Metro officials have been saying since the calamity occurred 10 days ago: that because the incident is under investigation by the NTSB, federal regulations bar the transit agency from commenting publicly. In an Oct. 20 letter to Metro, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) said there appeared to be a drop-off in the ability to make 911 calls in underground stations, on platforms and aboard trains in tunnels.
The letter, sent by a COG committee that monitors 911 operations regionally, said the committee “was made aware of the possible degradation of cell phone/smart phone access by Metro patrons” at underground sites. The letter said COG was “understandably concerned if there is a degradation of 9-1-1 access in Metro Rail and would appreciate being provided a current status report” about 911 access. COG offered to do a systemwide test for Metro on whether 911 calls could be made from the subway using four service providers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.
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