- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

A subway train operator last month discovered a tunnel fire in the Foggy Bottom area about four minutes earlier than has been previously reported, The Washington Times has learned.

District of Columbia fire department officials have criticized Metro for waiting about 11 minutes before reporting the April 20 fire, which stranded 273 passengers in a smoky train for three hours. The delay was closer to 15 minutes.

In addition, fire officials and Metro employees said the first contact between the transit system and the fire department originated with a call from the fire department's emergency dispatch center, not Metro's control center.

Metro managers "should have stopped the trains after the first reports of the fire," said a transit system employee familiar with the fire. "They got those people in middle of what looked like the gates of hell."

Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson yesterday said a train operator reported smoke in the tunnel at 4:40 p.m. The transit authority previously had said the first report of smoke occurred at 4:44 p.m.

The fire department first received calls about the fire at 4:42 p.m. from passengers using cellular telephones on the stranded train and from passers-by on the street.

Fire officials called Metro's Operations Control Center at 4:55 p.m. to inquire about the fire.

Metro's safety regulations require that fire reports be immediately relayed to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Control-center supervisors apparently thought the fire was caused by an electrical insulator, Metro sources said, adding that such small fires are not uncommon and usually are extinguished by Metro workers without the fire department's involvement.

The supervisors realized the fire was life-threatening when a second train operator saw an explosion in the tunnel, the sources said.

"[The train operator] was asked to use the fire extinguisher, but the flames got to be 4 to 5 feet high. Then there was another big flare-up and they realized they had a major fire on their hands," said a Metro employee familiar with the fire investigation.

Metro workers said that transit system officials delay calling the fire department because Metro then must cede control of the subway system to fire officials.

"Once Metro calls the fire department, the ballgame is over," said an employee. "The first thing the fire department wants to do is take down the third-rail power and we're out of business."

Fire department procedures require that the third rail, which carries 750 volts of electricity to power the trains, be turned off before firefighters go onto the tracks.

During the April 20 incident, power was shut down in both directions between the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom stations. Both the Orange and Blue lines, Metro's major east-west lines, are served in that section of subway and were cut in half when the system was shut down.

The Metro employee familiar with the investigation said the train that was stranded in the tunnel was delayed about five or six minutes by another train that had stopped just east of the Foggy Bottom station. The operator of that train reported "amber, amber," which is a fire report, the employee said.

The operator who first reported the fire was directed to stop the train and investigate the situation, the source said. The operator's description of the fire led Metro supervisors in the Operations Control Center to believe it was caused by a burning insulator, not an electrical conduit that was ready to explode.

While the operator was away from the train, a passenger used an emergency exit to leave the train, sources said. When the operator returned to the train, it could not run because sensors indicated a door had been opened.

The operator and a supervisor who was at the Foggy Bottom station inspected the train to be sure all the doors were closed before the train could be moved. About 300 passengers were offloaded at the Foggy Bottom station so that the train could be fixed.

Meanwhile, 273 passengers remained in the train in the tunnel when the electrical conduit exploded and sent flames shooting up the wall.

The operator of the second train "was stuck behind the problem. If the man had not left, she could have gotten through with all those passengers," said a Metro employee. "People should never pull the emergency handle. All you do is commit the trains to stay with the problem."

Mrs. Johnson, the Metro spokeswoman, said there were no reports of a passenger leaving the train.

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