"Unbelievable" was the word most often used to describe the gruesome crash site of the Metro Rail accident in Washington, DC, on Monday, June 22, 2009. The daily commuter homebound rush was well underway when the first call for help went out at 5 P.M. The initial dispatch call for help was as...
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"Unbelievable" was the word most often used to describe the gruesome crash site of the Metro Rail accident in Washington, DC, on Monday, June 22, 2009.
The daily commuter homebound rush was well underway when the first call for help went out at 5 P.M. The initial dispatch call for help was as unbelievable as the crash itself. A "Metro Box" alarm was sounded for the Fort Totten Metro Station on the "Red Line" as the primary location, with additional fire and EMS units being dispatched to the Takoma Metro Station as the secondary location.
The unusual part of the dispatch was that a major collision had occurred and one train car was reportedly resting atop another. The Takoma Metro Station is three blocks from my home, so I knew the area and the track bed reasonably well, and I was one of the "Doubting Thomases" who didn't believe that the dispatch information would turn out to be reliable. We were a little taken aback by the brief initial report of the first-arriving engine company: "Engine 26 is on the scene of a Metro train derailment with one car resting on top of another."
The company officer that day was Sergeant William Kennedy. He went on to declare a major incident and asked for a mass-casualty response. Kennedy would set the stage for one of the region's largest mass-casualty incident (MCI) responses in recent memory. This article is a firsthand account of the actions of the brave men and women of the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department and the National Capital Region.
The Rail System
The rapid-transit rail system known as "The Metro" opened in Washington on March 27, 1976. It is a modern, clean and safe system that has been expanded over the years to incorporate Northern Virginia and adjacent nearby Maryland. The system moves more than 215 million passengers per year, featuring surface, elevated and below-grade (tunnels) rail tracks. The Washington Area Metro Transit Authority (WAMTA) is governed by a board of directors that are representative of the National Capital Region. The system is just about the best way to get around our city and is convenient and cost effective. This crash was the worst in the system's 33-year history.
The subway system has 106.3 miles of track and operates 86 stations. The 906 rail cars operated by WAMTA range from 1976 to 2008 models, as each generation of cars provides new and upgraded features. The collision involved two six-car trains, with each train consisting of three "married pairs" of two cars each. The rail cars are 75 feet in length, 10 feet in width and have a capacity of 175 to 187 passengers per car, depending on the car model. Each car rests on top of two sets of wheel assemblies called "trucks." The trucks are machined, case-hardened steel structures containing the electric motors that propel the train. A "boot," or "shoe," rests on top of the third rail, powering the electric motors and other accessories associated with the operation of the passenger cars (lighting, air conditioning and door operations as examples). The system is electrically operated using a "running" third-rail process which delivers 750 volts of direct current as the prime motivation for the train. This electrical energy level is fatal, so precautions are in place to keep people away from the third rail.
Just before the deadly event, a train was stopped at the Fort Totten passenger platform for more time than planned. This delay caused Train Number 214 to be stopped on the inbound (south) track to await clearance. As Number 214 waited, Train Number 112 was operating at speed (reported to be 59 mph) and was behind the stopped train. As Train 112 rounded the bend underneath the New Hampshire Avenue overpass, the last car of 214 was now in sight. As initially reported by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Investigator-In-Charge Debbie Hersman, it is believed that the operator depressed the "mushroom" (emergency brake) and the braking system was engaged for about some 400 feet. However, at the operating speed of nearly 60 mph the stopping distance was way too short to stop the oncoming train prior to impact. Train 112 struck the rear of the standing Train 214 and, as a passenger best put it, "all hell broke loose."