Commuter describes harrowing climb on Metro escalator

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:40 PM

Michael Murphy has ridden Metro trains for a quarter-century - and he is an amateur hiker - but he said he's never had a scarier challenge than he did on Tuesday afternoon in ascending a Tenleytown Station escalator.

Murphy, 51, arrived on a train from his job downtown with the American Sociological Association about 4:10 p.m. and found that two of the three escalators at the Tenleytown exit were out of service. The only functioning escalator was carrying customers down.

A bit miffed but not surprised, Murphy, together with at least four other people, selected his route - the closest halted escalator - and started trudging up the long metal path. There were no warning signs or barricades at the bottom, and as a result they decided not to rope together for the climb.

Huffing and puffing, they neared the top, Murphy recalled, only to be horrified at the obstacle that lay ahead.

"Imagine our shock to find a giant HOLE where several steps should have been!" Murphy wrote in an e-mail.

Gaping in front of him was a 4- or 5-foot-long gap where several escalator steps normally would have been at the top of the conveyance.

The hole appeared deep, but it was dark in the escalator tunnel, and neither Murphy nor the other customers could see the bottom.

The only way across this urban crevasse was by way of three or four thin (an inch or less across), well-greased rods, crosspieces that extended over the hole from side to side, he said.

"We worked out a system where you put two hands on the handrail, and then tried to get a footing and made it from one rod to the next," Murphy recalled on Friday by phone.

"Be careful! They are slippery!" a climber ahead of him, a middle-aged businessman in a suit and tie, called back to Murphy.

Another climber, a woman of about 35, nearly fell into the hole. Murphy also nearly slipped in but gripped the handrail in a last-minute surge of strength and managed to make it over.

"All of us were terrified!" said Murphy, of American University Park, who describes himself as an "easygoing guy, very even-tempered and generally slow to anger."

Once over the crevasse, the group huddled, catching their breath, and a Metro employee approached.

Murphy and other customers told her of their ordeal, but she was cold and unsympathetic, he said. "All she really said is, 'You shouldn't be there.' She said it over and over," Murphy said. The businessman also tried to get through to her, but the Metro employee appeared unfazed. "She had her line and she kept repeating it," Murphy said.

Murphy immediately went home, got online and filed an incident report with Metro. Receiving no response, he contacted The Washington Post.

In response to a Post inquiry, Metro launched an investigation of the incident. "Preliminarily, it appears that the barricade and steps were moved aside and the customers were not aware that the barricade was there originally when they approached the unit," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein wrote in an e-mail. She said the incident had not been reported to Metro's Operations Control Center or Escalator Office.

"We deeply regret that out customers were put in this situation," Farbstein said, adding that "the customer's account continues to be investigated."

Murphy said it is true that there was a yellow barricade and that some steps that were moved aside at the top of the escalator, past the hole, but there was nothing at the bottom warning customers not to go up.

Murphy said he has some climbing experience. "I'm not a ropes and pitons kind of guy, but I've been on the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls," he said.

Nothing he has encountered in Washington, however, prepared him for the unpredictable and hazardous conditions on his Metro trek this week.

"When my life and well-being are foolishly endangered or threatened, then I become concerned and determined to do something," he wrote in the e-mail.

Back at his office Friday morning, Murphy said he had his hiking boots on.

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