The National Transportation Safety Board is presenting the findings of its investigation into the fatal Jan. 12, 2015 smoke incident in a Yellow Line tunnel near Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station.
During Tuesday morning’s portion of the meeting, the NTSB criticized Metro and several agencies involved in the response to the incident. The panel also provided additional details of what happened that day and the investigation that followed. In addition, the safety panel reiterated its concern that that Federal Transit Administration has safety oversight of Metro, as opposed to the Federal Railroad Administration, which NTSB believes is better equipped to monitor and enforce rail safety.
We listened to the morning presentation and found some startling revelations, including a new video showing a smoke incident similar to the one that Jan. 12 afternoon, and findings that suggest Metro’s process for investigating a fire or smoke incident put passengers in danger.
Let’s start with the troubling video
The video (above) shows images of a March 14 tunnel fire near the McPherson Square Metro station, an incident that the NTSB– and Metro– says was similar to the Yellow Line incident at L’Enfant Plaza. That incident, in which no one was injured, also involved faulty electrical cables and prompted Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to order an unprecedented 24-hour weekday shut down of the entire subway, on March 16, so crews could reinspect the cables.
The video clip from a surveillance camera captures the electrical arcing, followed by interment flashes, and smoke filling the platform.
Cable inspections after the L’Enfant incident
After the L’Enfant Plaza incident, the NTSB examined cables at multiple locations and “found many were not in accordance with WMATA’s engineering design specifications, including those replaced after the accident,” the report said. The Jan. 12, 2015 incident began due to electrical “leakage” from degraded power cables, according to the board. The NTSB said that cable-connection assemblies lacked the proper type of sealing sleeves. The sleeves are vital to keeping electrical current properly contained. The leakage led to burning and smoke in the tunnel, the NTSB said. After the L’Enfant Plaza incidents, investigators found that sleeves were not used to protect the cables from moisture.
Metro smoke investigations involved passengers
NTSB investigators found that “it was common practice (for Metro) to use trains with passengers to investigate reports of fire or smoke,” an NTSB official said. That practice was done instead of “stopping all trains and using a qualified person to follow up on a report.” Metro said it has stopped the practice.
No emergency drills?
Prior to the fatal incident, Metro had not conducted a full-scale tunnel evacuation drill in years. The transit authority last conducted such exercise in March of 2010, five years before the L’Enfant Plaza incident. The NTSB said the Federal Railroad Administration requires annual emergency drills on commuter and intercity rail properties it regulates, but the Federal Transit Administration does not. Investigators concluded that response drills would have better prepared the Metro and other response agencies for the Jan. 12 incident.
Unprepared Fire and EMS
A review of the Fire and Emergency Services response found flaws in the actions and procedures taken by the incident commander who was the active fire chief at the time. The NTSB said the commander had not training on the incident management system that would have prepared him to better command the response. Investigators also concluded that the city’s emergency services was unprepared to respond to a mass casualty incident in Metro’s underground rail system. The investigation found that the incident warranted implementation of a “unified command” response, a system used when multiple agencies are involved in an emergency situation, but the fire commander did not elevate the incident to that process, and in the process Metro Transit Police was excluded from the response.