Metro did not call the District of Columbia Fire Department until 13 minutes after the first report that smoke was billowing out of subway tunnels near Foggy Bottom on April 20, according to fire department emergency tapes.
Firefighters and emergency technicians were on the scene when Metro’s Operations Control Center called to report the fire at 4:55 p.m. People on the street and inside the subway train began reporting the fire at 4:42 p.m.
Moreover, Metro’s call came 11 minutes after train operators had discovered smoke and reported it their superiors.
Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann Thursday said the delay in notifying the fire department is part of an investigation into the accident.
“The differences in time when the operator first detected the smoke and when we first called the Fire Department, what occurred in that 10 or 11 minutes of time… . We are looking to see if there is something that needs to be improved in the future,” Mr. Feldmann said.
The delay violates the Metro’s safety rules and procedures, which require that the Fire Department be notified immediately after smoke or fire has been found.
Fire officials were trying to determine the extent of the electrical explosion that caused smoke to billow out of the subway over a four-block area, while 273 passengers inside the train were calling fire department dispatchers on their cellular phones.
A copy of the recorded phone calls obtained by The Washington Times show the distress of the passengers while they waited.
“We are on the Metro Blue Line and the car is full of smoke,” a female caller said. “The car is full of smoke everyone is on the floor.”
“We’re trying to get Metro to answer us. We can’t breath,” said another woman.
Fire dispatchers tried calming the passenger. “I don’t want to calm down,” said a woman. “We don’t have anyone to help us.”
“How the … should I remain calm when my children are choking,” said another woman.
Interim Fire Chief Thomas N. Tippett said he believed many things were learned from the fire and did not want to criticize Metro until after the whole incident is investigated.
The delay is “an issue for Metro to address,” Chief Tippett said.
He said he met with Metro General Manager Richard White Thursday and they are working to resolve communication problems within Metro and the Fire Department so that similar emergencies are handled better.
He provided Mr. White a copy of the tape recorded emergency dispatching calls. “I do believe after the meeting with their general manager, they will be addressing many things,” Chief Tippett said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Chief Tippett said he hoped Metro would help pay for a new transmitting system that can be used by firefighters inside the subway tunnels in case of emergencies. The worst types of fires are always underground, he said.
“I treat Metro as a basement fire with 2,000 people trapped in the basement. I want state-of-the-art communications in there,” Chief Tippett said.
Deputy Fire Chief William E. Mould, who heads the department emergency medical services, was one of the first fire officials on the scene. He said conflicting information fire dispatchers received from callers caused delays in locating the stranded train in the subway.
The chief said firefighters had to search for the fire that stranded 273 riders on the Blue Line train between Farragut West and Foggy Bottom stations.
“I was right there when the call when out. I went to 17th and I [streets NW] and I stopped there momentarily and there wasn’t anything but a slight haze,” Chief Mould said. “When I got to 23rd Street, we set up [an emergency] command post and were were trying to make decision on what we had.”
Another fire official criticized Metro for allowing other nonessential people to use a direct telephone line inside the subway tunnel that is to be used for emergencies.
“When I was on the line I heard people ask ‘Who is this? Who is there?’ ” the official said.
Fire officials also complained that Metro officials’ inaction and confusion delayed the evacuation of passengers in the smoke-filled cars. Metro blamed the evacuation delay on the Fire Department’s communication systems, which did not work in the tunnels.
Metro safety officer Fred Goodine said Monday the likely cause of the fire was a frayed electrical conduit that provides 750 volts to the third rail that powers the trains. When the cable short-circuited, power was knocked out on the section of track and stranded the train.
Metro reports show that after the train left the Farragut West station, the train operator saw smoke about 4:44 p.m. She stopped the train and alerted the Operations Control Center. Metro said the evacuation of the train began at 5:30 p.m. and all of the passenger were removed by 7:55 p.m.
A fire official involved in the decision to walk the passengers out of the train said Metro officials argued about whether power could be restored and a rescue train moved in.
“We were receiving a lot of mixed signals from Metro that did not make me feel safer for our guys or the passenger,” the official said. “We made the decision. If Metro can’t get their act together and tell us what they can do, we are going to do what is best and evacuate the train.”