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Metro under investigation for handling of February fire at L’Enfant Plaza station

Among the missteps cited were sending passenger-filled trains to check reports of fire and waiting several minutes before calling fire and rescue crews

People board a Metro train at L’Enfant Plaza in January 2019. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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For the second time in about two months, Metro is being investigated for its handling of a fire, including sending passenger-filled trains to check reports of fire and waiting several minutes before calling fire and rescue crews.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission — an independent government agency that oversees Metro safety — is investigating the Feb. 4 fire, while also pushing Metro to complete a corrective action plan it ordered in December.

“Metro’s response to the February 4, 2020, safety event at L’Enfant Plaza Station is troubling, and the [safety commission] has ordered a full investigation,” commission chief executive David L. Mayer said in a statement.

Metro, in a statement, acknowledged violating safety protocols and said it was revising or creating rules and guidelines to prevent a recurrence.

The fire and emergency response issues were first reported by Statter911, a site that reports fire and EMS news.

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The fire began when a maintenance crew tried to remove a padlock from an employee locker in a mechanical room at L’Enfant Plaza station using an unauthorized tool for the job, Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said. Statter911 reported the tool was a hacksaw, and it generated sparks that fell into an electric component that began to smoke.

The crew extinguished the fire and a supervisor on-site deemed it under control, Jannetta said. Operators of trains carrying passengers nearby were told to do a track inspection in the vicinity of the smoke before “residual smoke was cleared,” which could have harmed passengers.

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On Wednesday, Jannetta said Metro’s chief operating officer will soon put out an order prohibiting trains carrying passengers from making track inspections for any reason.

“There were also procedural violations to emergency response protocols that were deemed to warrant corrective action, which is being administered,” Jannetta said.

Metro did not disclose what the violations were. Statter911 reported that one of those violations was not immediately summoning emergency response crews, resulting in a several-minute delay before D.C. firefighters responded.

In December, Metro was cited by the safety commission for its response to a Dec. 10 fire on the Red Line. The commission found several violations — safety failures that Mayer said were “echoes” of the chaotic response to the deadly 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident.

On Jan. 13, 2015, one passenger was killed and dozens injured when a train in a tunnel just outside L’Enfant Plaza station stopped after the operator encountered heavy smoke. The smoke, which later was determined to be from a fire caused by an electrical malfunction involving third-rail power cables, enveloped the train. Choking riders were trapped for at least 35 minutes.

The missteps the commission cited in December included failing to offload passengers before sending a train to do a track check, and failing to close vents to prevent possible smoke from filtering in. The operator mistakenly disabled the train’s controls and lighting systems, which left panicked passengers in the dark as the train limped back to a station 50 minutes later because of the disabled controls.

The safety commission also cited Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center for being chaotic and dysfunctional during the incident, with officials yelling at each other and issuing conflicting instructions.

After firefighters investigated the track fire, Metro restored power to the electrified third rail before the crew could get off the tracks.

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Mayer said at the time that the response was a “near miss” from causing injuries, and he ordered Metro to improve emergency training and submit a corrective action plan to address the specific violations.

Mayer said Wednesday that Metro submitted a plan, but “it did not say how the safety problems would be addressed, and the [safety commission] is awaiting an acceptable revision.”

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