By Lena H. Sun and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Smoke poured into Metro subway tunnels again last night, a day after an unprecedented and unexplained series of such incidents, and baffled officials began to consider the possibility that the events were more than mere accidents.
"This is not normal," Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said. "This is highly, highly irregular."
Asked whether he suspected terrorism, Catoe said no. But he added: "Could it be something else? Everything now is suspicious."
Asked whether he suspected sabotage, he said, "I don't know the answer to that question."
A spokesman for the D.C. fire department said the department was "very concerned" about the large number of incidents in a brief period and would try to assist Metro in determining whether they were more than accidental.
It was unclear what service would be provided this morning on a Blue and Yellow Line segment between the Pentagon and Braddock Road, which remained closed late last night. Travelers continued to board shuttle buses at the Pentagon City stop.
Yesterday's events, which came just after the height of the evening rush, as did Sunday's, halted train travel on part of the Green Line in the District and much of the Blue and Yellow lines in Alexandria and in Arlington and Fairfax counties.
At one point, a Metro spokeswoman said, seven trains lost power in the Blue and Yellow Line tunnels south of the Pentagon.
That was only one facet of an often chaotic situation that forced thousands of irritated and bewildered passengers to leave stopped trains to continue trips home that stretched for hours in some cases.
Officials provided some explanation for the shutdowns but could not provide a detailed basis for much of what happened.
"We're at a loss to identify the root cause of the problem," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.
However, Darrell L. Darnell, the Homeland Security official with responsibility for the Washington area, said there was no indication of terrorist involvement.
The U Street/Cardozo Station on the Green Line in the District was closed by smoke from about 7:20 to 8:40 p.m. Alan Etter, a D.C. fire department spokesman, said the immediate cause of the smoke there was an overheated third-rail insulator.
But that did not answer questions about underlying causes.
Etter said fire officials will meet with Metro officials today "to see if we can figure out what's going on." He called the rate of smoke incidents alarming.
"We'd like for them to stop," he said.
In Northern Virginia last night, problems began at 7:07, when trains halted between the Crystal City and Braddock Road stations.
By 8:30 p.m., rail service was shut down between the Pentagon and the Huntington Station on the Yellow Line and the Franconia-Springfield Station on the Blue Line.
Farbstein said the trains were unable to draw sufficient power from the third rail. In addition, she said, smoke was reported in the tunnel in the Pentagon City area.
Late last night, she said it was not clear exactly what caused either problem or whether they were related.
After a shutdown of about an hour, service was restored between Braddock Road and Huntington and Franconia, Farbstein said.
The scene at the Pentagon bus platform seemed particularly chaotic, and one woman, who said she had been traveling and waiting for three hours, burst into tears over the disorder.
Before last night's incidents, Metro officials said they were investigating the possibility that a power surge might have caused one or more fires at rail stations in Northern Virginia on Sunday night, when five separate outbreaks of fire or smoke shut down several stations and halted train service on all five subway lines.
Calling the incidents "unprecedented in our 31-year history," Metro Deputy General Manager Gerald Francis apologized to riders and said the agency has formed a team to find the cause of the incidents.
"Thousands of riders were impacted by [Sunday's] series of events," he said in a statement. "We know our riders are frustrated."
Power surges can be caused when lightning hits a cable or telephone line or when a higher-voltage line falls on a lower-voltage line. A spokeswoman for Dominion Virginia Power says there is no equipment to monitor whether specific circuits experienced power surges.
Francis said Metro is investigating the power surge with Dominion, Metro's power supplier in Northern Virginia.
Le-Ha Anderson, a company spokeswoman, said Dominion employees were sent to the Reagan National Airport station, the scene of one of the fires, at Metro's request. But, she said, "our employees were released after a Metro official described the problem as an internal communications room problem."
All of Sunday's incidents occurred within a three-hour period, triggering power failures and major delays throughout the system. Stations at National Airport and Huntington in Virginia and Farragut North and Farragut West in downtown Washington were temporarily closed.
Smoke and fires are not unusual on Metro tracks. There were 61 reports of smoke and 36 reports of fires that disrupted train service last year. But even before last night's incidents, officials said that never before have there been so many in such a short time, officials said.
Dan Epps, who oversees the center that monitors and controls the trains, was paged about the first report of smoke at 5:45 p.m. Sunday, at Mount Vernon Square on the Yellow and Green lines. But nine minutes later, he was called at home about the much more serious report of a fire at the National Airport station on the Blue and Yellow lines.
"I was alarmed and concerned," he recalled. He was pacing in the kitchen of his Silver Spring home, coordinating train deployment from his land line and taking calls from other Metro officials on his cellphone. "I knew we had some big emergency issues," he said. "I was asking, 'What the heck is going on?' "
Three of Sunday's incidents, and at least one of last night's, appear to have been prompted by problems with insulators, which are attached to the electrified third rail that provides power to trains. Insulators, made of fiberglass, can last for years if they are in dry areas but only several months if in wet areas, officials said. Metro officials said they do not know what caused the insulators to smolder.
But Metro officials say the fire at the airport station, which occurred at 5:54 p.m. Sunday in an automatic train control equipment room along the tracks, might have been caused by a power surge. A surge could have been a factor in the fire at the end of the line, at the Huntington Station on the Yellow Line, they said.
The equipment room at the National Airport station houses the support electrical equipment and circuitry to operate Metro trains.
"There had to be some type of surge or power interruption," Francis said. "It either comes from us or from who supplies the power to us."
Metro officials said they suspect a power surge because at the same time as the National Airport station fire, a Blue Line train traveling toward Largo Town Center in Maryland lost power at the Braddock Road Station, the next station after the airport's.
Because of the fire at National Airport, a Yellow Line train lost propulsion power about a half-hour later between the Pentagon and Pentagon City stations, causing a delay in removing that train from the tracks, according to a chronology released yesterday by Metro.
At 6:32 p.m. Sunday, Epps received another report of an "amber-amber," Metro's code for fire. A smoldering insulator inside the Farragut North Station on the Red Line prompted officials to close the station for more than two hours.
Three minutes later, another fire broke out. It involved three smoldering insulators at a storage and staging area at the Huntington Station.
Staff writers Theola Labbe, Marybeth Sheridan and Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.