Metro had been on a downward spiral for years, but the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke calamity brought things to a head. Carol Glover, a 61-year-old grandmother from Alexandria, Va., died on the smoke-filled train, and dozens of riders were injured. Electrical arcing incidents like the one that contributed to the L’Enfant calamity continued. But when Metro sent out a message at 4:35 p.m. on March 15, 2016, that the entire rail system would shutter that evening because of urgent safety concerns, it was a watershed moment for the agency. Behind the scenes, the announcement was the culmination of a day and a half of soul-searching inside Metro, as the agency’s barely tested general manager held hurried conversations with staff, local leaders and his own family to figure out what to do. This is a look at how the decision unfolded.
— Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld
— Metro board Chairman Jack Evans
— Lynn Bowersox, Metro assistant general manager for customer service
— Metro spokesman Dan Stessel
— Metro board member Jim Corcoran
— Leif A. Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation and Metro board member
— John Falcicchio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser
— Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.)
— Kathryn Thomson, former general counsel to the U.S. Transportation Department
— Robert McCartney, Washington Post senior regional correspondent
Monday, March 14, 2016, 4:30 a.m. There’s a fire on the tracks near McPherson Square. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is at his apartment near Union Station. Four months into his new job at Metro, he’s still learning people’s names at the agency.
Wiedefeld: Early Monday morning, around 4:30 or so, my pager goes off that there’s a rail disruption conference call.
Dan Stessel, Metro spokesman: Whenever we have a major incident or service disruption, the ROCC [Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center, akin to the air traffic control system] sends out an automated notification that’s able to hit 50 or more people at one time. … It makes a noise [on] an iPhone, literally the least pleasant, most harsh thing — a submarine horn.
Wiedefeld: I’m on the phone, I’m reading what’s going on, I’m asking, touching base with everyone, whether it’s the police, whether it’s the bus people … “What are we doing to get out communications?” I’m pretty much running on the fly getting things together to get out.
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans: Paul reported to us that there was a fire incident at one of the Metro stops, McPherson Square. It occurred at like 4 in the morning, so there were no passengers on the trains. But it was almost identical to the incident that occurred when Carol Glover was on the train.
Wiedefeld: I think Dan picked me up from my apartment and we went right over to the station — a lot of press was there outside. At that time we had shut down three lines. We were putting in bus bridges. I told them I needed to go down and see what I had first.
Wiedefeld: I’m walking down, I see where the foam is that put out the flame. … I see charred cabling, I see some melted metal. It has a charred smell. I’m physically on my knees … looking under the third rail to see if there’s anything there, just to get a sense of it. … What was running through my head is looking at that and thinking, “God forbid, an hour later, what would this look like with trains running?”
Wiedefeld sets up a “mini crisis room” at Metro headquarters, calling in members of his staff and peppering them with questions about the cause of the McPherson fire.
Wiedefeld: The bigger thing for me is basically, “Explain to me, how did we get here? What things got us to that point that I’m seeing what I just saw? Show me, prove to me, that that’s not gonna happen somewhere else.” … They can’t give me immediate answers, they’re giving me different answers, they have different theories.
Lynn Bowersox, Metro assistant general manager for customer service: The [fire] incidents had occurred before. And when I conveyed that to him that this was a repeat, I could tell that his antennae really went up.
Wiedefeld: I start to get in the back of my head, “I’m not getting very comfortable here. … This is not gonna work for me.”
On Monday afternoon, Wiedefeld drives home to his family’s house in Towson, Md.
Wiedefeld: I went home for about two hours. … [I] was with my wife for about an hour — basically sort of walked her through it. You gotta remember my mind-set at the time, I’m new at the job, relatively new, a few months in. … We’re gonna do something that probably has the potential of me losing my job — but I’ve gotta do it. I wanted a little bit of the comfort back with someone that I’m close to. I told my wife, tomorrow’s gonna either be a very short day or a very long day.
Bowersox: It was 7, 7:30 that evening as I’m walking out of [Metro headquarters] … I get a call. [Wiedefeld] says, “I’m not comfortable with what I’m seeing; we need to reconvene.”
Wiedefeld: I called a meeting at 8 or 9 at night. A focus group of some highly technical people, some outside contractors that we had on board. … I asked, I’m not sure to anyone in particular, “What if this had occurred when a train was going by?” And the answer was catastrophic.
When officials say the fire was similar to the L’Enfant incident a year earlier, here’s what they mean: On Jan. 12, 2015, a fire erupted when electricity escaped from a “jumper cable” linking a gap in the third rail. Smoke poured into a rail tunnel, and a six-car Yellow Line train stalled on the tracks, becoming enveloped in noxious fumes.
Wiedefeld: Basically I said, you know, “You all need to talk me off the ledge here because I’m about to shut this thing down.”
Stessel: For people who have been here, who were around that table, it was surreal. Just this atmosphere of seriousness, right when Paul said, “Talk me down, guys, cause otherwise this thing’s gonna be closed.” The room fell silent.
Wiedefeld: I just went to the apartment and tried to get some sleep. … I was thinking, this is something that I’ve gotta commit to unless they can convince me differently. I can’t waver based on other factors. It’s the middle of the night, and you’re thinking all kinds of things.
Tuesday, March 15. Wiedefeld arrives early to Metro headquarters and meets with staff to get their final assessments. He is scheduled to give a noon speech at the Committee for Dulles, where he is introduced by Jim Corcoran, Metro board member and president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.
Wiedefeld: They had several hundred people there, so basically I said I’ll commit … So I went out there, and, in fact, one of my board members introduced me. And I gave a brief speech.
Corcoran: I knew that something was up, only because I talked to Paul that day at lunch.
Wiedefeld: I was trying to hold it together. You know, I was working on very little sleep. It was decided to get in front of the board and give them a chance to understand it and the gravity of what I was about to explain to them.
Evans: I remember being in the general manager’s office and being a bit angry that not only did nobody know [about the fraying cables], but they were only being inspected either every six months or on a yearly basis. And so, since Carol Glover had died, I guess they had either not been inspected or they hadn’t been inspected in six months. My annoyance was the staff seemed to have been defensive in that they were going by the book. It’s spin; the staff always spins everything, and that’s what it was.
Evans: Paul outlined the situation … If we closed the system down, he could [inspect the entire system] within 24 hours; if not, it would take a week to do all the inspections.
Corcoran: There was conversation about, “Is this course of action the right course of action? Is this necessary? Is there another way around this? Could we do this overnight? Could we do it on a more limited basis?”
Evans: On the call, there were various different opinions. Mine was to shut the system down. Other board members weren’t so sure.
Corcoran: It was going to have a tremendous impact on people’s commuting lives. … There was the financial risk. It was the risk of losing riders. It was the risk of, “What are we gonna find and what are we gonna do if we find something that doesn’t allow us to reopen?” On the other side of the equation, “What if we don’t do this and something happens?” What if we have another January 2015 incident? Someone died in that. So there were ramifications no matter which way the decision went.
Evans: After a spirited discussion of maybe 20 minutes or so, and I remember this distinctly, I said “Paul, what do you wanna do?”
Wiedefeld: In a very quiet manager [voice] I said, “I’m gonna shut down the system.”
Evans: That was the end of the discussion.
Email from Bowersox to Stessel, 2:46 p.m.: “Get ready — announce at 5 closure for 24 hours beginning at midnight tonight. Inspect then any fixes may require additional potential outages. Start preparing release.”
John Falcicchio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser: It was a little bit of a head-scratching moment when the news first came … I remember the question that folks had was, if it’s that bad, why is it okay for people to take Metro home that day? I don’t know that we had a sense of what exactly triggered the shutdown, because that was such a dramatic step at that point.
Evans: We had just transported that morning 350,000 people into the city, and if you close Metro right this moment, there was no way you were gonna get 350,000 people home. I mean, people would be walking across the bridges, you wouldn’t be able to get in taxis, Lyfts, Ubers, buses, to get out of here — you would cause gridlock. The decision was made to send out a warning.
Falcicchio: I think everybody was obviously concerned that there was something that was an immediate risk that made them shut down the system. However, the question that arose was, “Why is it being shut down tomorrow? If the risk is so great, then why wouldn’t that be done immediately?”
Bob McCartney, senior regional correspondent The Washington Post: I got a phone call from someone who had been on the call where Wiedefeld had briefed people. … The first reaction was, “Oh, this is gonna cause such a mess tomorrow with the traffic.” And the second reaction was, “Boy, Metro must be in much worse shape than we realized, if he thinks this is necessary.”
An aide handed Rep. Gerald E. Connolly a note on the House floor. He needed to call Wiedefeld. Right away.
Connolly: It was a brief conversation. … I wasn’t entirely surprised, because things had been allowed to deteriorate so badly. There were genuine safety concerns throughout the system.
Kathryn Thomson, former general counsel for the U.S. Transportation Department: My personal reaction was, “This is great. There’s somebody who’s in charge and decisive about making decisions that are important to the safety of the system.” That was something we really hadn’t seen before.
Connolly: I did make the point with [Wiedefeld]: “This can’t be the answer long-term. You get to do this once. But I don’t think you get to do this again, at least with any credibility.”
McCartney: The editors were aghast. At first they were unbelieving: “Are you sure?” That was one of the reasons I wanted to get a second source right away. They were stunned. I think everybody was stunned. It had never happened before.
Leif A. Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation, is on a beach 80 miles south of Cancun, in the middle of his honeymoon. He takes a break from reading a book on his Kindle, and glances at his phone.
Dormsjo: I looked at my phone and saw a record number of text messages. And as I opened up my iPad and shut down my Kindle — which I had been really enjoying all that week on my honeymoon, which I took a year late because of my commitments to public service. My wife had long waited for us to get away together. I opened up The Washington Post … [and saw] what was going on with Metro. And I felt doubly blessed to be on my honeymoon with my loving wife, and to not be in Washington, D.C.
McCartney: That night we got an inkling that Bowser wasn’t happy, [because] her response was something like, you know, “We wish we’d been brought in earlier,” or something like that. And the next day we realized how really annoyed she was that this happened, because it just affected her government so much, and her businesses and residents so much — more than anybody else.
Falcicchio: I think any elected official reflects the sentiments of their residents. And any concerns or frustrations that we might have expressed at the time was probably a reflection of some of the things we were hearing from residents — about, one, was it safe to get on Metro this afternoon? And, two, what are we going to do tomorrow?
Wednesday, March 16. Metro is closed for the entire day, but the federal government remains open. Connolly took his usual morning commute, driving with one of his staffers on Interstate 66 from Virginia to the U.S. Capitol.
Connolly: When I hit the D.C. border, I remember that it was just a nightmare. Everything was much more congested, especially downtown. All of us noticed how it put a burden on traffic.
Thomson: There was a Women’s History Month event at the White House … I got a car from DOT to drop me off, but I couldn’t get back from downtown to save my life. I would normally have taken Metro, but of course there was no Metro. There were no taxis. The Ubers were taking forever to come. So I walked — the good ol’-fashioned transportation method. It took 40 minutes.
Connolly: I think people approached that morning with a certain amount of fatalism that has crept into a lot of commuters’ views of Metro. … Expectations are lower, people expect delays, and while this was the most drastic action, I think a lot of people were expecting that, sooner or later, something like this might have to happen.
Wiedefeld: We had set up a war room where all the reports would come in with things all over the walls of 22 zones and where they were, where the cables were and what had been inspected, and literally people were taking cellphone photos and sending the reports in to this team so they could keep rolling to manage this thing.
Thomson: [The Federal Transit Administration] was not present during those inspections … and we probably should have been. … FTA was trying to get its sea legs on what is effective oversight, and this shutdown came in the middle of that process.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee just after 2:30 p.m. on the day of the shutdown for a previously scheduled hearing. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle tear into Metro, calling on the Transportation Department to take further steps to help fix the system. Foxx puts the blame on the local jurisdictions for failing to enact a safety oversight organization. “We’ll tough it out for one day,” says Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), “but is this change going to be reliable? Is it going to be sustainable? Is it going to stick?”
McCartney: I remember thinking, “This is a hell of a debut for Paul Wiedefeld.” It wasn’t the first big thing he’d done, but it was more dramatic, because at least with a snowstorm you had an event that everyone could blame it on. In this case, you could only blame it on him.
Falcicchio: After the morning went as normal as it could be with the Metro shutdown, I think the question was, “Are we going to have to do this for more than one day? What’s the remedy that has to happen to get it where it needs to be?”
In the end, the shutdown wasn’t the commuter nightmare the region had envisioned. To be sure, getting around was a struggle, but the region avoided complete gridlock. Wiedefeld was lauded for his swift action to address serious safety deficiencies, but his moves have since become the subject of scorn for some riders, who say the repeated service disruptions are driving them away from the system.
Thomson: When it was over, no one at DOT thought, “Aha, everything’s resolved and we’re good to go.”
Dormsjo: It was a big wake-up call; I think it’s been certainly something that has motivated the public leaders and management team here in WMATA to prevent that from ever happening again. Thomson: At the time, I didn’t think about it, but if you fast-forward to May 2016 [and the announcement of Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance program], the experience of that day — and the havoc it created — was transformative, in terms of how to plan for the future.
Falcicchio: “I think it definitely raised folks’ awareness that measures were going to have to be taken that might disrupt the regular operations of Metro — we wouldn’t be able to just do it within the existing hours of maintenance, and there would need to be a plan for us to get to a state of better safety.”
Connolly: The shutdown confirmed what I already believed about Wiedefeld, which is that he is willing to make difficult decisions. He is willing to take the heat. He’s done that with personnel, with finances, with operations, SafeTrack. Not all of that is perfect, but he is trying to play catch-up for deferred decisions.
Wiedefeld: This event basically put in focus for me that I’ve got to really start to do what I think is right — I’ve gotta go, I’ve just gotta start going on things. I would have gotten there. But clearly this said to me, we are not gonna do things the way we’ve done ’em in the past.
McCartney: People still talk about it. “Oh yeah, he’s the guy who shut down the system.” It got attention around the world. People around the world were saying, “Oh yeah, the Washington Metro was shut down for safety reasons.” People noticed it.
Evans: For Paul Wiedefeld, that was a defining moment for him, making an extremely difficult decision … It was his decision at the end, and we proceeded accordingly. When people talk about Metro being dysfunctional, I would say this is a good example of Metro not being dysfunctional. It was one of our finest hours, so to speak.