Metro's Response To Alert Delayed

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 23, 2005

Jittery about the bombings in London and told to be vigilant, Metro riders spotted an unattended backpack yesterday on the last car of a Blue Line train and did exactly as officials have been urging. They alerted the train operator.

But the suspicious bag stayed on Train 401 as it rolled through two more stations -- Metro Center, a major hub, and McPherson Square, a few blocks from the White House -- before Metro officials took the train out of service and inspected the backpack.

"It was an inadequate response, to say the least," said Elaine Donnelly of Hyattsville, a passenger on the train who works as a librarian at National Geographic. "I saw the head of the transit police talk recently about all the things they were doing -- all this extra security. But that didn't seem to jibe with the experience that I had."

Another passenger, Katherine Lewis, a reporter for the Newhouse News Service, was in the next-to-last car of the six-car train when it pulled into Federal Triangle Station shortly before 1:30 p.m.

She said she realized something was very wrong. Riders were evacuating the last car, pounding on the train windows as they ran for the exists out of the station, she said.

"People were running past our car," Lewis said. "I got up and moved to another car further up. I really didn't know what to do."

Donnelly, who was sitting in a middle car, said passengers clearly were alarmed.

"This woman came in frantically and said, 'Call the operator on the intercom -- there's a suspicious package in the last car,' " she said. "A man called the driver on the intercom, and I could hear the driver insisting we had to clear the doors, to move the backpack because she was having trouble closing the doors."

As the doors closed at Federal Triangle, the operator announced that there was an unattended bag and that security officials would "hopefully" board the train farther down the line, Lewis said. And the train proceeded.

At the next stop, Metro Center, Lewis got off and found two Metro Transit Police officers on the platform. "Did the conductor tell you there was an unattended bag on the last car of that train?' " she asked as the train pulled from the station. They told her that was the first they had learned of it, she said. One officer said he would report it by radio.

When the train pulled into McPherson Square, Donnelly got off and saw transit officials empty it and pull it from service.

"This can't be what they're supposed to do," said Donnelly's husband, Paul, who was having second thoughts about taking the Metro to the Nationals game last night. "Is this what the Israelis would have done? Is this what London would have done today?"

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said she did not have enough information to explain the actions of the train operator, whether the operator followed Metro policy or what Metro policy is regarding the handling of unattended bags.

"I don't have answers to those questions," Farbstein said. "A lot of this is still sketchy."

The backpack contained two baseball hats and belonged to a child who left it on the train at the Smithsonian Station, Farbstein said.

Metro officials said they have increased security since the latest attack in London this week.

Officials barred all contractors from overnight track work Thursday and swept stations and track beds, looking for anything suspicious. Nothing was found and contractors were allowed back in the system last night. Transit police said they are considering random bag searches -- a practice that police in New York are doing on subway lines and commuter railroads.

Shaken by yesterday's incident aboard the Blue Line train, Donnelly sent an e-mail complaint to Metro. She received an automated reply, thanking her for her e-mail.

The reply also reminded her to report anything suspicious on the Metro system.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company