Federal investigators delving into the Jan. 12 smoke calamity in a Metro tunnel completed two days of fact-finding Wednesday in public hearings that produced “some clarity” about the deadly incident while also raising “more questions that now have to be answered,” the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said.
“There were a lot of contradictions,” Chairman Christopher A. Hart told reporters after the board and several panels of experts finished questioning Metro officials, federal and regional transit regulators, emergency first responders and others. The NTSB’s final report on the incident is expected to be issued early next year.
“That always happens in fact-finding gatherings,” Hart said as investigators wrapped up the public portion of their inquiry into the smoke crisis. One rider died and at least 86 others were sickened after a Yellow Line train stopped in a tunnel just south of the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station that was filled with noxious fumes.
“When you hear different stories from different people, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is lying,” Hart said. “People have different perspectives. . . . There’s one side of the story, there’s another side of the story and the truth is somewhere in between.”
“Our job is to put that all together,” he said.
Tuesday’s hearing focused largely on technical issues related to a malfunction of track-based electrical equipment in the tunnel, which produced the smoke, while Wednesday’s questioning dealt mainly with Metro’s management culture and safety awareness. Investigators also queried regulators about their roles in overseeing Metro.
Klara Baryshev, chairwoman of the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors Metro safety, noted that although her group can make recommendations for improvements at Metro and publicly report on the transit agency’s problems, the committee has no statutory enforcement authority.
The Federal Transit Administration has newly acquired safety authority over subway systems. But the FTA, the oversight committee and other agencies monitoring Metro do not work with one another in an integrated way, officials testified.
“Where the regulatory structure is ambiguous and confusing, I think that adversely affects the safety of the whole system,” Hart said. “Who’s in charge here is not clear. Who can do what is not clear. . . . I think that lack of clarity exacerbates the problem.”
As for contradictions, James Curley, the operator of the train that encountered the tunnel smoke, told investigators that the train eventually lost power after stopping in the tunnel, according to a transcript of his debriefing by investigators.
But before the train lost power, Curley said, there was a period of several minutes during which he could have returned to the L’Enfant station had train controllers been able to make room in the station by moving a train occupying platform space.
However, during Tuesday’s hearing, Hercules Ballard, a top Metro rail official, told investigators that Curley’s train lacked sufficient power to return to the station.
“I did not get clarity on that in the course of the hearings,” Hart said. “And so our investigators will have to dig deeper on that one.”
The most contentious exchange Wednesday — between an NTSB member and a Metro union official — concerned Metro’s “Close Call” reporting program, which allows transit workers to anonymously report safety concerns without fear of anyone being disciplined, except in certain situations.
The close-call program, a product of negotiations between Metro and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, was set up so that Metro could identify and correct safety problems that might go undetected by automated monitoring systems. Except for cases involving criminal behavior, injuries, drug use, intentional property damage and other exceptions, no disciplinary action results from the reports, Metro said.
But James M. Madaras, a member of the union’s executive board, said during the hearing that some Metro employees are leery of the program, worried that supervisors or fellow workers might retaliate if they learn about a report.
“That’s the biggest battle that we fight every day. . . . People don’t want to talk to each other because of the fear of retribution,” Madaras said. He said the situation became worse this year when Metro introduced a “discipline matrix,” or formal punishment guidelines for work infractions, which the union opposed.
“I just don’t think you can tell me at one point that . . . we’re going to openly talk about things and then in the same breath you turn around and institute this disciplinary matrix, which makes me apprehensive, because I’m fearful there’s going to be some type of retaliation for anything that I mention,” Madaras said.
This piqued the interest of NTSB member Robert L. Sumwalt. “Is it your belief that a confidential close-call reporting situation should involve no discipline under any circumstances?” he asked Madaras.
“Outside of criminal activity, I believe that’s what should occur,” Madaras replied.
Looking at the disciplinary matrix, Sumwalt said, “I see an item here about ‘unauthorized passenger in cab of train.’ ” He called that sort of infraction “a willful violation” and asked the union official, “Why would you want to allow a willful violation to have no discipline?”
“Mr. Sumwalt, I answered the question — the original question — as best I could, about criminal activity,” Madaras said.
“Well, okay,” said Sumwalt. “We’re not here to hear my opinion, but you’ll get it, anyway. In a ‘just culture,’ there is a line. And certain things are tolerated, and other things are not. So it might be good to go to school on what a ‘just culture’ involves.”