Mknac’s Weblog

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DC MetroRail Fire and Train Evacuation

I was a passenger on the DC MetroRail Red Line train that caught fire on December 12, 2008.  Unfortunately it didn’t occur to me to snap some photos so you’ll have to settle for my account the event.

I caught the train at Shady Grove like I do every day.  The ride itself was uneventful until the fire and evacuation.  I wasn’t really paying attention to my morning commute to DC as I was deeply engrossed in a good book I am currently reading.

After we had passed Friendship Heights station the train stopped in the tunnel.  Soon afterwards the train operator announced that there was a fire and we should evacuate the train.  Of course this took us all by surprise and we all just sat around looking at each other.  About then we started seeing smoke in our train car.   The operator made a couple more announcements to evacuate. After that there was no other announcements or help from metro employees.  I guess the operator beat feet also.

In this situation it appears Metro has no over-ride to allow the operator to open the train doors.  Metro needs to seriously review this because if the operator had opened the doors evacuation would have been easy.

Now I’ve been riding metro for 15 years and this was a first for me and I learned many things that I’ve never really paid much attention to.  First in an emergency situation only the center door on metro rail cars open and only one half of the door opens. Initially passengers tried to open our metro rail door and could not.  As the smoke in our car increased fellow passengers continued with their efforts to open the door.  (To be fair I was observing as there were four men who I considered capable of opening the door working on it and thought myself jumping in at that time wouldn’t have helped the situation.)

As our passengers worked on the door we began to see other passengers outside the car and this lead to some degree of panic.  A couple passengers gave the windows a push but quickly realized breaking the windows to get out was not possible.  I actually thought about the passengers who died in the MARC train crash in Rockville a few years ago because the windows on the train couldn’t be opened.  About this time the guys working on our door got it open.  There was an elevated level of smoke in our car, although a serious concern I didn’t think it had reached a critical level.  You could see it sort of like fog. You could also most certainly smell it when you breathed and taste it.  But it wasn’t at a level causing coughing or choking but most certainly gave cause for alarm that we were in a serious situation.  I guess if you had some physical issues particularly respiratory the situation would have been much more difficult.

Luckily we were calm and exited the train in an orderly manner.  Although our car was only about half full when we stopped in the tunnel it felt like an eternity waiting to get out.  You know what is like getting off a DC MetroRail car with three doors open at the platform.  Imagine half a car load of people trying to get out half of one door, in poor light conditions and having to step down to the track level.

Eventually our car emptied and we followed the line of people making their way slowly to the Friendship Heights station.  There wasn’t much light but it was enough to walk along the tiny path between the train and the wall of the tunnel.  I didn’t see any people with walkers or wheelchairs etc on my car.  I’m not sure how anybody with those kind of disabilities could have evacuated.  Scooters, wheelchairs and walkers would have been to wide to fit on the skinny walking path.  The path was about as wide as a goat trail.  The path had several obstructions protruding from the tunnel walls.  There were also little rocks and the like that somehow overtime fell down onto or were kicked up onto the path by trains and people.  Movement was slow but steady and the person in front of you pointed out hazards and you told the person behind.

I had always thought in this situation you walked to the next station platform and exited.  We never made it to the station, I guess because a Metro employee took us another way. We ended up climbing a metal scaffolding like stairway from the tracks to Wisconsin Avenue.  It must have been ten to twelve stories give or take.  Many passengers had to rest on the landings to catch their breath and recover.  As with everything that morning it was eventful as the stairs wobbled back and forth because of the weight and movement of the people. Eventually I popped out on Wisconsin Avenue at Friendship Heights station no worse for experience and with a story to share at work.

I must commend my fellow passengers for working together as a team and not panicking.  Once the door opened everyone was helpful, courteous and calm.  Of course there is always one person.  One woman who was panicked kept cutting the line and going around others to save herself I guess.  She passed me at the base of the stairs before the climb up to Wisconsin.  However she wasn’t in good enough shape to speed up the stairs.  I passed her about halfway up as she rested on the stairs after burning out.

As a result of this experience I am convinced that Metro needs to make at least one window on each side of every train car an emergency exit that can be opened by passengers in emergency situations to exit.  Also the operator should be able to override the safety controls and open the doors in the tunnel to facilitate evacuations in the future.  I sent an email to Metro about my experience suggesting these improvements.  In today’s restrained monetary environment I doubt Metro will spend money on these safety enhancements.

I only wish it had occurred to me to take some pics, so much for my citizen journalism.

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December 13, 2008 Posted by | social media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Driving in Cali

I recently spent a week in Cali and actually thought that Cali/LA drivers were much better than DC drivers.  If you live in DC you know the drivers here are the worst.  Then if it rains or snows forget it.  You’ll have white knuckle drivers going 5 mph because there is some snow on the road.

Anyhow about the only decent thing about Europe are their driving laws.  I’m speaking specifically about Germany and Italy where I’ve driven significantly.  What really burns me in DC and most of the east coast is drivers who block the fast lane going 55 mph.  Soon 10 to 20 cars pile up behind these fools.  Eventually you have to weave between lanes to get around them.

Of course their argument is something like “the speed limit is 55, you’re not allowed to go higher than 55 even when passing, it’s my right to be in the fast lane” blaa blaa etc.  These people are so myopic that they don’t see how they are disrupting the traffic flow and that they could go 55 in one of lanes right of the passing lane without affecting the traffic flow.  Try doing that in Europe and you’ll be involved in an rear-end collision quickly.  In Europe you pass and immediately get out of the passing lane because somebody going faster than you is coming soon.

If U.S. drivers were smart enough to adapt this policy I believe traffic would flow much better in most places.
So here’s to the majority of the 405 and 5 drivers I encountered in Cali who passed and moved to the right allowing faster moving cars to pass them.  Most Cali drivers will disagree I’m sure, but compared to DC drivers at least in Cali drivers have a clue.

December 9, 2008 Posted by | social media | , , , , , , | Leave a comment