Federal investigators: Fans pushed smoke toward DC subway

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Posted: Feb 11, 2015 4:29 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Instead of pushing smoke out of a subway tunnel, ventilation fans actually pulled it toward a stalled train, exacerbating the choking atmosphere aboard the train that led to the death of a passenger in downtown Washington, federal investigators said Wednesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board detailed the ventilation failures as it issued urgent safety recommendations to the Metro transit authority and transit networks nationwide. The board's description of what happened with the fans was the most detailed account yet of Metro's failures during the Jan. 12 accident, which sent more than 80 people to hospitals. Investigators said the smoke was caused by an electrical malfunction.

The Virginia-bound train stopped in a tunnel near the L'Enfant Plaza station during the early afternoon rush hour. The source of the smoke was ahead of the train, but the first ventilation fan activated by Metro was behind it, which pulled the smoke toward the train, the NTSB said. Also, the train operator did not immediately shut off the trains own ventilation system, which caused smoke to be drawn inside the railcars.

In addition, two of the four fans that could have drawn smoke away from the train had either broken down before the accident or stopped working sometime during it, the NTSB found. Metro also has no way to pinpoint the location of smoke in its tunnels, the board said.

Lawmakers representing the region said they were shocked by the NTSB's findings.

"Frankly, it is stunning that (Metro) would need NTSB to remind it that the Metrorail system should have a ventilation system in good working order," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a northern Virginia Democrat. "While I strongly concur with these NTSB recommendations, I am disappointed that they are even necessary."

There were numerous other breakdowns the NTSB has yet to address. Passengers waited for a half-hour before the first firefighters arrived to help them, and some evacuated on their own. They were repeatedly told to stay put by the train operator, who said he planned to return the train to the station.

The cause of the electrical malfunction also remains under investigation.

Dan Stessel, a Metro spokesman, said in a statement that Metro welcomes the NTSB's recommendations and is reviewing its protocols and training to comply with them. He said all ventilation fans have been inspected since the accident and were found to be working properly. Metro has also given additional training to employees who have the ability to turn the fans on and off, he said.

According to the NTSB, other transit agencies have written guidelines about how to ventilate tunnels for fires or smoke, but Metro lacks them.

Carol Glover, a 61-year-old federal contractor from Alexandria, Virginia, was killed. It was the first fatality aboard Washington's subway system since a 2009 crash that killed eight passengers and a train operator. Glover's two sons have filed a $50 million lawsuit against Metro.

Patrick Regan, the Glovers' attorney, said he was disturbed but not surprised by the NTSB's findings.

"It's inexcusable that something as relatively benign as what happened could have led to this tragedy because Metro wasn't following the basic safety policies," he said.

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