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DC’s Metro disaster: A major crisis of confidence & no one has a clue how to deal with it

DC Metro incident 3a 1-12-15

Previous coverage of this incident

(Note: At 8:23 p.m. The Washington Post has published the first timeline of the incident. It came from unidentified District of Columbia officials with access to dispatch records – more here.)

What has transpired since Monday in your Nation’s Capital has been tragic and maddening. It’s bad enough a woman is dead and scores of others are suffering after being trapped for a very long time in a smoke filled Metro train under L’Enfant Plaza. What is making this so much worse is the misguided and amateurish response from both Metro and the District of Columbia government that is further eroding confidence in both the transit system and the DC Fire & EMS Department. On top of this, the usual ray of light in getting confirmed information to the public in these situations, the National Transportation Safety Board, doesn’t seem to be performing at its best.

It’s now more than 48 hours after the incident occurred and no one is providing even the most basic information about the response on Monday. This comes at the same time those who were on the train are wondering what took so long for everyone to be rescued and why wasn’t more done earlier to get the passengers to safety.

The new mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel Bowser, actually asked all of the right questions at her Tuesday press conference when she said, “I think the key points will be: What time did we receive the calls? To what locations were we informed that there was help needed? When did our units arrive? And when did we have safe access to the tracks?” But Bowser and two departments she controls, the DC Fire & EMS Department and the Office of Unified Communications (OUC or 911 Center) have many of those answers and could have easily shared the information as early as Monday evening.

DC Metro Bowser 1-13-15

It’s now Wednesday and no one in DC has offered the basic information that is provided daily upon request on virtually every other response by the DC Fire & EMS Department. Refusing to follow this standard protocol on releasing information has created suspicion that the DC government did not properly respond to this emergency. It’s astounding that, at this point, we don’t know any of these things:

  • When did  Metro first report this situation to OUC and what information was provided
  • When did OUC dispatch the call to fire and EMS, what equipment was sent and what information was given to those responding
  • When did firefighters arrive at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station
  • When was power cut to the third rail and when did firefighters enter the tunnel

In addition, the DC Fire & EMS Department should be addressing safety information for those who continue to ride Metro. Instead, Mayor Bowser or her aides told Interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones not to talk about the Metro incident. I am sorry, but emergencies like this one are exactly when we should be hearing from a fire chief. By the way, this how the previous administration handled numerous crises involving the DC Fire & EMS Department. Delaying, hiding and no commenting didn’t work well for them and it won’t work well for Ms. Bowser.

DC Metro Jones 1-13-15

Now, on to Metro. Metro also should have immediately provided basic information saying when they received the first report of a problem, the initial actions taken and exactly when Metro contacted DC’s OUC. Metro has a terrible record in communicating with fire departments about emergencies in the system. Through the years, many incidents have been documented where Metro checked out reports of smoke on its own before requesting firefighters.

In a similar incident on April 20, 2000 Metro didn’t call for help for 15 minutes after learning of smoke in the tunnel at Foggy Bottom. In trying to investigate that problem, Metro ended up trapping a train filled with 273 passengers in the smoke filled tunnel for more than three hours. It’s unknown if there was any delay in calling for help in Monday’s incident.

What is known from news coverage yesterday and today is that just like in 2000, the DC Fire & EMS Department could not effectively communicate on its radios Monday because of Metro infrastructure issues. It’s sad to think that passengers have long been able to make cell phone calls from inside Metro tunnels but firefighters still can’t talk on their radios.

Then there is the NTSB. In almost every transportation incident I covered in my four decades as a reporter I was greatly impressed with how NTSB released information. Their standard is to provide confirmed facts as soon as possible. In most incidents, a basic timeline was given in either the first or second briefing. That hasn’t happened in this case.

What makes this worse is that DC government and Metro officials say they are withholding information and deferring instead to the NTSB. Some have gone so far as to claim to reporters that they’ve been stifled by a NTSB “gag order”.

DC Metro NTSB tweets

In two tweets to reporters, NTSB confirmed there actually is no “gag order” but gave somewhat conflicting information about what is happening. In the first response to reporter questions at 6:29 p.m. Tuesday @NTSB wrote, “Parties aren’t ‘forbidden’ but must coordinate w/NTSB first so invest isn’t compromised.”

By the next tweet on the subject at 9:18 this (Wednesday) morning the “must” turned into a “need” saying,  “There is no gag order, but parties do need to coordinate investigation info release with NTSB.”

I have tweeted NTSB asking more about what’s behind the “must coordinate'” and “need to coordinate” and why that’s the case. I’m curious exactly what federal law stops local officials from speaking about something in their jurisdiction and why they have to “coordinate” what they say with those doing the investigating. So far, no response.

DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Click here if video above fails to play

While there is no “gag order” it apparently hasn’t stopped Metro General Manager Richard Sarles from telling members of Metro’s board that there is one. According to WTTG-TV/FOX 5 reporter Matt Ackland (video above), DC Councilman Jack Evans, a Metro board member, got off a radio interview about the incident and had a call from Sarles. Evans was told he shouldn’t say another word about the incident because of the NTSB “gag order”.

Ackland also reports that DC expects to finally provide details about this response on Monday, a full week after the incident occurred.

DC Metro Sarles 1=13=15

So, as you see, it’s a real mess in DC right now with Metro, the DC government and the NTSB all helping to make a bad situation much worse. Their failure to provide even the most basic information in a timely manner and to reassure Metro riders with an honest discussion of safety measures makes us all think they are hiding something.

This is no way to run a railroad, an investigation or a city.

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