Fans used to ventilate the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station during a deadly Jan. 12 incident actually pulled smoke toward a disabled train where trapped passengers gasped for clean air, according to new findings released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The investigating agency also determined that Metro does not have a written strategy detailing how to deal with heavy smoke in its stations and that the transit authority has no way of pinpointing where smoke is coming from inside its tunnels.
The findings were included in a letter sent Wednesday from NTSB acting Chairman Christopher Hart to the Federal Transit Administration to detail urgent safety recommendations.
In the letter, the NTSB recommended that rail transit agencies nationwide examine their in-tunnel ventilation systems and review emergency procedures for fire and smoke events in the wake of the fatal Metro incident.
Mr. Hart also indicated that the ventilation strategy used by Metro during the incident did not follow best industry practices. Additionally, two separate ventilation shaft fans in the tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station failed during the incident.
“Procedures for ventilation of smoke in emergencies can be critical, but they vary across systems, and in some systems are inadequate — as we have found in the present WMATA investigation,” Mr. Hart said. “Although the investigation is ongoing, WMATA should immediately address these issues to prevent any chance of a recurrence, and other systems should be audited for similar problems.”
Carol Glover, 61, died and 86 people were hospitalized after the passenger-filled commuter train became disabled inside a tunnel and filled with smoke. A report by District officials indicates passengers waited, coughing and gasping for clean air, for at least 30 minutes from the time the train stopped until first responders reached them and began an evacuation.
Details of the latest findings come ahead of a Friday congressional oversight hearing that will examine safety lapses in the Metro system. Among those who will grill Metro officials about the incident is Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who expressed dismay at the failure of the response.
“Frankly, it is stunning that WMATA would need the NTSB to remind it that the Metrorail system should have a ventilation system that is in good working order, ventilation procedures, and finally, training for its employees on said procedures,” Mr. Connolly said.
Metro officials said the transit authority already is working to address the issues raised by the NTSB.
“Following the January 12 incident, we conducted systemwide inspections and tests of all tunnel fan shafts and found them to be in good working condition,” said Metro spokeswoman Caroline Laurin.
Metro also has retrained control center staff members and has changed protocol for train operators, allowing them to cut off a train’s air intake system in the event of smoke.
D.C. officials and regional fire department officials also announced changes Wednesday.
City Administrator Rashad Young said the D.C. fire department will return to using unencrypted radio channels for all standard operations, adding that the change was under review before the Jan. 12 incident.
First responders had trouble communicating at the scene by radio inside Metro tunnels, and officials have questioned whether the department’s recent encryption was responsible for the issues.
Fire chiefs from six jurisdictions with Metro service announced Wednesday a commitment to regularly test their radio systems within Metro tunnels. The fire departments also will look into ways to standardize protocols for emergency response within the Metro system and to increase emergency training.