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.


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

Georgetown University Is Hard To Get To

As a graduate student at Georgetown University (GU) I’ve discovered Georgetown (Gtown) and GU are hard to get to.  There is no Metro station in Georgetown.  Over the years of working in DC occasionally you see articles about why there is no metro station in Gtown.  I don’t know if they’re true but at this point that doesn’t matter; only the reality that there is no metro stop counts.  So if you don’t live or work within walking distance you’re out luck.

The available options to get to Gtown are driving, DC Metro Bus, Georgetown Circulator bus, taxi or bicycle.  There are some Gtown specific buses that run from Gtown to the Dupont Circle metro and Rosslyn metro, but they have the same issues (see below) as the Metro and Circulator buses.  Also GU has some type of bus system but I’m not familiar enough with the university’s buses to discuss them.

As far driving goes the parking in Gtown is a nightmare.  Driving yourself is the most convenient way to get to Gtown.  Of course you have to fight the DC rush hour and drivers should be wary because the DC meter maids are always out in force generating additional revenue for the city to waste.  They love Gtown because the parking is so bad and residents have special stickers for parking in Gtown.  Take a local spot for more than two hours and you’re likely to have present from the district on your windshield after class.
Georgetown terrain map by Google
Taking a DC Metro Bus or the Georgetown Circulator bus is great for getting to Gtown but not GU.  When I don’t drive to GU I usually take one of these buses from work.  All in all you can’t beat the price of a bus ride on either Metro or the Circulator to Gtown.  However if you ride either of these buses you have to deal with buses where the air conditioning may not work, be packed in the bus like an Army cattle bus and believe it or not sometimes unsavory DC co-riders.  The real problem with the bus is where it drops you off.

You can usually get off either of the various buses some where on M Street or Wisconsin Avenue.  That’s great if you’re going to Gtown.  If you’re going to GU being dropped off at M or Wisconsin isn’t so great.

At GU the term “Hill Top” refers to many things, for good reason.  If you haven’t been to GU when you go there you’ll discover GU is on top of a sizeable hill.  If the bus drops you off at say M and Wisconsin, a popular drop off point, you’ve got a 15 minute walk up hill to GU.  The season really affects the quality of the walk.  Now in the summer, with the typical DC heat and humidity, it’s terrible.  I have to wear a suit to work.  ☹  By the time I get to GU I’m soaked.

Taking a taxi is great because you get dropped off where you want and don’t have to walk up any of Gtown’s hills.  But as you might guess it’s the most expensive way to get to Gtown/GU.  Ten dollars (from the vicinity of the White House) compared to one dollar on the Circulator and I believe one dollar and thirty five cents on the Metro bus.

Being a cyclist myself I’d love to ride my bike to Gtown.  Gtown has a thriving bike community and several high end bicycle shops on the western end of M street for all your biking needs.  However biking from home to work to GU in my suit or bringing a change of clothes and carrying my books and laptop just isn’t going to work so that’s out.

Well it just isn’t easy but is always an adventure trying to get to GU / Gtown.  Too bad Gtown wasn’t included as a stop when the Metro Rail system was built.

June 11, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment