Malfunctioning escalator injures 4 at L'Enfant Plaza station

Metro's budget and workforce for maintaining escalators and elevators have dropped relative to the growing number of machines, leading to numerous breakdowns and headaches.
By Maria Glod and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 7:45 PM

Metro riders said a crowded escalator at the L'Enfant Plaza station began to speed to dangerous levels before it was halted Saturday afternoon, causing some passengers to fall as they got to the bottom.

Melissa Robertson, said she was partway down when the steps began to move faster and faster. She grabbed her 7-year-old daughter with one arm, lifted her and clung to the rail with the other hand. Her husband, Peyton, picked up their 11-year-old son and climbed over the railing.

"It was like being on a roller coaster," said Robertson, 44, of Anne Arundel County. "There was nowhere to go. We were really accelerating as we were going down. People were starting to scream and panic."

Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates said an escalator at the station's 9th and D Street SW entrance malfunctioned about 2 p.m. while descending into the station. However, she said she could not confirm reports of witnesses who said the escalator accelerated. Gates said four people were treated for injuries that were not life-threatening and that a station manager and transit police officer were on the scene to help.

"We don't know for sure what happened," Gates said Sunday. She said the escalator has been taken out of service until an investigation is completed.

The incident occurred as Metro stations were crowded with people attending the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally on the Mall. Metro officials said a new Saturday ridership record was set, with 825,437 trips taken. The average number of trips taken on a Saturday is about 350,000.

Although the cause of the incident is unclear, Metro has been struggling to maintain its aging escalator system. Riders have been frustrated by out-of-service escalators, and officials have said it is difficult to keep up with repairs. Metro has 588 escalators, more than any other transit agency in North America.

In December 2008, a stopped escalator at Gallery Place Station suddenly began to move in reverse, throwing some passengers backward. Two people were treated at a hospital for scrapes and bruises, Metro officials said at the time.

Joe Corey, 42, of Raleigh, N.C., was walking down an out-of-service escalator Saturday at L'Enfant when he noticed the escalator to his left began to speed up.

Corey, who had come to the rally with his wife, Becky, 32, and infant daughter, Josie, said people on the runaway escalator began scrambling onto the ramp that separated the two escalators.

"People were trying to get to me, so I dropped everything I had and tried to get to them," Corey said. "It was like a rip tide. . . . I was trying to grab anyone I could."

Corey said the incident lasted about 45 seconds. "There were people who were coming away bloodied and with ripped pants," he said. "It was not a simple 'whoops, a couple of people fell off the escalator.' It was pretty vicious."

Samuel Robfogel of the District was at the top of the bank of escalators when he saw people on the staircase below him begin to move faster.

"It was like watching a carnival ride," Robfogel said. "It went from nothing to 'oh my God, it's not stopping.' "

Robfogel said he began trying to turn back the crowd that was flowing into the station by telling people there was a problem with the escalator. He ran outside to summon help, but emergency personnel had already arrived.

"Escalators should never do this," Robfogel said. "Given the general concern about escalator maintenance, this is really troubling."

Melissa Robertson, who said the skin rubbed off her fingertips where she clutched the rail, said the escalator stopped as she got to the bottom. She said she managed to stay upright while holding her daughter, but about five or six people had fallen around her. Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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