Metro Fires, Threats Slow Morning Commute

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

A breakdown in police communications caused a delay of nearly two hours in the arrival of a bomb squad to investigate suspicious packages yesterday at the Braddock Road Metro station, one of half a dozen incidents that hobbled the transit system during the morning rush.

The other incidents, which all took place before 10 a.m., were a Metrobus fire near Farragut Square, a fire on the tracks at the Farragut North Station -- the third incident there in less than a week -- reports of fires at the Smithsonian and West Falls Church stations that turned out to be false and an unsubstantiated bomb threat at the McPherson Square Station.

As emergency personnel rushed around the region, the incidents caused significant delays on the subway system, which provides more than 700,000 passenger trips on an average weekday.

"The day was a tough day for our customers," said John B. Catoe Jr., Metro's general manager, who was sworn in last Thursday. "We had a series of events beginning at 3 a.m. and kept going through midday that disrupted service, in one case unnecessarily."

He apologized for the disruptions and said he accepted responsibility for Metro's role in the communication breakdown at Braddock Road. If communication had been clearer, he said, "it's highly probable that we would have been able to resolve the issue and not impact service."

The Braddock Road incident began about 3 a.m., when Metro workers alerted an Alexandria police officer about two unattended suitcases and a backpack near the station's entrance, Alexandria police said. Alexandria police, who do not have a bomb squad, contacted other police agencies, including Metro's, to find a bomb dog, said Lt. James Bartlett, an Alexandria police spokesman.

Alexandria police contacted Metro police twice, at 3:18 a.m. and 3:41 a.m. But the Alexandria dispatcher did not say that suspicious packages were involved. Instead, Alexandria police asked Metro whether it had a bomb dog on duty, incorrectly assuming that Metro police already knew of the incident, Bartlett said.

"That apparently was not case," he said.

On the first call, the dispatcher said: "Hey, I want to double-check -- you have a bomb dog that's going to be assisting there at the Braddock Metro, right?"

The Metro police dispatcher "stated that they did not have a bomb dog assisting" and hung up, Bartlett said.

"We should have said, 'We're working a suspicious package at Braddock Road, and we need a bomb dog,' " Bartlett said. "But we weren't clear, and they didn't ask questions."

A Virginia State Police team arrived shortly after 5 a.m., followed immediately by Metro's explosives technicians, who were alerted after the station manager reported for work and found the station closed.

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