At precisely 6:06 p.m. on Jan 17, train operator Robert Law radioed Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Headquarters and said he had a "possible fire" on his train which had ground to a halt under San Francisco Bay in a shower of sparks and flashing electric arcs

Seven hours and 24 minutes later the fire was declared under control. An Oakland fireman was dead. BART's vital transby tube was ordered closed and stayed shut down for 11 weeks. An investigation showed that BART was not prepared for an emergency such as this.

The Oakland Fire Department did not know at the first where the fire was and sent equipment to the wrong location. BART dispatched two trains loaded with passengers into the tube while the fire was raging. A few passengers were even exposed to the fire twice.

The only communication system under the Bay for both the San Francisco and Oakland fire departments was a phone line that went to BART headquaters, not the other fire units. It was found dreadfully inadequate.(FOOTNOTE)irefighters were greeted by dense black smoke that spewed from the car floors and seats which are made of Polyurethane, a highly flammable plastic that emits toxic fumes when ignited. The ventilation system in the 3-6 mile-long BART tunnel, which was supposed to clear smoke from the fire area, was improperly operated, making the smoke worse, not better. (SECTION) ubway systems around the country, including Washington's Metro, sent people here to study the fire and BARTS's reaction to it. Most shook their heads and concluded that BART was fortunate.

The train on which the fire occurred was going into San Francisco from Oakland just as the evening rush hour crowd was going out. While there were only 40 people on board, if the same thing had happened to a train on the opposite track, 1,500 or so people would have been aboard. Could they have been evacuated?

BART has taken steps since the fire that are considered extraordinary in American subway operations. BART has conducted evacuation drills from the tube and posted large placards in its subway cars telling riders what to do if there is a problem. Riders are told how the doors open, where to go in the tunnel, what to expect.

"What we are doing is getting into the business of informing the patron of the implied risk of travel - just as the airlines do with their preflight briefings," said BART spokesman Michael Healy.

Written agreements with the San Francisco and Oakland fire departments have been drafted for the first time to establish the exact lines of command in emergencies. Changes have been made on the door handles to the passageway connecting the two BART tubes under the bay. The doors themselves have been repainted from gray to bright yellow. Mileposts have been set up inside the tunnel so the train operators can tell precisely where they are. BART's train control system, like Washington Metro's, knows what section of track a train is in, but not exactly where it is within that section.

BART has intensified training on the operation of the ventilation system and established a schedule for replacing the polyurethane seats - a course of action fire officials have advocated for years.

Keith Bernard who had just started as general manager at BART when the fire occurred, was visibly shaken by the event. "Our emphasis before the fire was on train operations, and building protection into those operations," he said in an interview. "We're now putting more emphasis on emergency preparedness."

The BART train fire, investigators now know, actually had it's origin at 4:30 p.m. when a metal cover fell off a switch box from under the car onto the BART tracks as the train hurtled through the tube. There were sparks when the cover apparently hit the third rail, and the train stopped briefly, but then proceeded without incident.

Two subsequent trains were sent through the tube at slow speed and their operators were instructed to careflly check the roadbed. They saw one piece of equipment on the track, a "derail bar" unique to BART cars, but nothing else. Full-speed operations were resumed.

Robert Laws's train left Oakland West, the last station on the Oakland side of the Bay, at 6 p.m., and entered the tube. The switch box cover, which had been dragged along the tracks, had done its damage. The third rail - the one that carries electrical power to the trains - or some brackets holding the rail had been knocked out of alignment. When a contact shoe on a BART car hit the misaligned rail, it was knocked loose, "resulting in short circuits and fire," according to the official report of the Board of Inquiry. The fire started in the sixth car of the seven-car train.

Passengers were herded to the front of the train by a BART supervisor, who just happened to be on board. The smoke was dense almost immediately.

Hours of confusion followed as rescue trains were dispatched into the tube with passengers on them, as firefighter stumbled down smoke-filled corridors and tried to figure out where they were and how long they could stay here with their breathing equipment.

The Oakland fire department rescued the passengers on the fire-stricken train and the San Francisco fire department put out the fire. The Oakland fireman was killed when rescue train left the tube at top speed and pulled a plume of toxic smoke behind it. The wind forces that the train created knocked the fireman over and he died from the smoke.

Before BART was permitted to reopen the tube, the California Public Utilities Commission required the transit system to add an extra BART employe to each train going through the tube to help in any possible emergency or evacuation.

BART lost $5 million in revenue during the 11 weeks the Public Utilities Commission forced it to keep the tube closed. BART insisted it could have been running single-track operations within three days of the fire.

"We coule have bought an awful lot of safety improvements for $5 million," general manager Bernard said. (END FOOT) CAPTION:

Picture, officials are looking at potential fire hazards of Washington's Metrorail system. As many as 1,600 commuters will cram aboard a single train during rush hours. By Paul Myatt