'Victims' Say Underwater Metro Rescue Took Too Long, Lacked Communication
Monday, September 18, 2006
For its annual disaster drill yesterday, Metro wanted to devise the worst scenario possible: A bomb. In a train. In a long, deep tunnel. Under the Potomac. With the power and communications out and seven agencies trying to talk and work together.
And, to complicate matters, Metro wanted to keep its real trains running, even past the "disaster" scene.
Using about 120 volunteer "victims" who rode an early morning Orange Line train out of Rosslyn, firefighters from the District and Virginia pulled off their "rescue" in about two hours. Metro officials had hoped that by using a "rescue train," they would extricate the victims in about 45 minutes.
"I'd give us about a C," said Fred Goodine, Metro's assistant general manager for systems safety. "We put ourselves under pressure in a test we had never conducted before." Metro has been doing emergency drills since 1999 but never in an underwater tunnel.
The volunteers were generally complimentary about how their rescuers performed, but they were unhappy about spending more than four hours underground, including the two hours it took for the mock explosion and rescue to occur.
"There was a problem with communication. There wasn't any," said Arthur Garroway, a volunteer rider from University Park. "When they tell you the rescue train is coming in five minutes, and then there's nothing 25 minutes later, that does not instill confidence."
Nearly all of the volunteer riders were members of Community Emergency Response Teams, civilians who have gone through training and who help during fire or police crises. Without such trained riders, chaos probably would have erupted during the long darkness, many volunteers said.
"And if there had been smoke," Garroway said, "it would have been chaos regardless."
The passengers spread across six cars of the train in Rosslyn, with about 20 painted in fake blood and gory makeup to simulate injuries.
They climbed aboard the train about 7:30 a.m. but didn't head out of Rosslyn until about 45 minutes later. The "bomb," which passengers said was a loud flash grenade, exploded about 8:30.
Firefighters from Arlington County soon began hiking down the tunnel behind the train.
Firefighters in the District headed to one of the numerous shafts that are built into the train system about every 2,500 feet to allow access from the surface. The closest one to the river, at Thompson Boat Center near Virginia Avenue NW, provided a stairwell down to the tunnel.
The D.C. firefighters reached the train first, about 9 a.m. Arlington paramedics soon followed and radioed in an estimate of 30 to 40 injuries.
Then, communication between the surface and the tunnel stopped. Metro turned off the "repeaters" that boost the signal from portable radios.
Local and federal police and fire agencies have planned for such a situation and created the National Capital Region Radio Cache, an emergency stock of radios that can be used to restore contact between agencies, said Lt. Wes Rogers, a Fairfax County fire lieutenant. Within 20 minutes, firefighters hustled to the boathouse and dropped equipment from the cache down the shaft to keep the agencies talking.
Goodine said delays occurred because rescuers had to ensure that power in the rails was completely off before taking people from the train -- and that no one was on the rails when power was restored for the rescue train.
The rescue train didn't arrive until 10:35 a.m. Victims moved on shortly afterward, but the train didn't head back to Foggy Bottom for an additional hour.
In an actual emergency, Goodine said, both stations and the tracks between them would have been closed, and the rescue train would have moved much more quickly.
If power couldn't be restored, a diesel-powered train was available for rescue help, Goodine said.