"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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Upon impact, the striking train's exterior shell did a "telescope" over the top of the standing train car, giving the effect of one train car coming to rest on top of another. It was amazing to witness, but the sad reality was only the exterior shell was atop on the standing train. The trucks, framing and the passenger compartment all took the brunt of the impact. As noted earlier, a standard Metro rail car is 75 feet long. The leading car of Train Number 112 was now compressed to about 25 feet. That means about two-thirds of the car had been crushed, much like someone would squeeze an accordion. An amazing sight to see up close, but the "survival" space in the lead car was tremendously reduced. As best we can determine, all nine fatalities were riding in this space.
The collision occurred underneath the New Hampshire Avenue overpass, which is just about in the middle between the two station platforms. It was at 5 P.M. on a warm and clear day. The stretch of tracks was at grade level (not in a tunnel or elevated). The location, time of day and weather were all to the responders' advantage. The train was southbound (traveling toward downtown DC) with a smaller load of passengers. Outbound trains at this time of day are generally packed to capacity. The tunnel would have made the dozens upon dozens of rescues much more difficult. And, if people were on an elevated section of track, self evacuation would not have been possible, overwhelming the 200-plus members that responded that night.
The timing proved to be another advantage, in that all of the senior and executive officers assigned to DC Fire and EMS Headquarters were at their desks and just a few miles from being on location. This fact helped to strengthen the command and overhead team. The official NTSB report is not due out for about another year, but the preliminary indication is that about 300 to 400 customers were riding on the two trains.
A Dangerous and Difficult Operation
The initial-arriving companies gave a clear and concise brief initial report. It was transmitted and understood that this was a major incident and many people were hurt by the impact. The first few operating units approached both trains from both sides (A and C) to control and guide the flow of passengers. High on the operational priority list is shut off, locking out and tagging the 750 volts of direct current. However, the initial companies had to forgo that most basic safety consideration if they were to guide and direct the several hundred walking wounded and unharmed people to safety. The companies fully understood the extra danger they were in and that the passengers had to be guided from harm immediately or this horrible situation would become much worse.
Command and operations section were quickly established at this incident. Assistant Fire Chief Lawrence Schultz (Operations chief) would be the incident commander and Deputy Fire Chief Tim Gerhart (Operations Deputy) was assigned the task of Operations Section chief. Several mission-critical objectives had to be handled simultaneously. Along with the triage, treatment and transportation of the scores of injured was the instant need to shut off the electricity to the third rail and lock out and tag out the deadly incoming energy.
Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) passenger trains and CSX freight trains use the same tracks, so it was critical to control and stop that traffic near this site. The lives of hundreds of fire and police first responders would rely on this action to be taken quickly and effectively. Additional resources would be needed, so early calls for three mass-casualty task forces (each with an ambulance bus, supply support unit, five ambulances and a supervisor), a third-alarm response (18 engine companies, seven ladder companies, four heavy rescues, and dozens of staff and specialty units) were called.
All of the injured people who could be accessed without extended extrication action were triaged and move to the treatment area under the command of Evacuation Branch Director Battalion Fire Chief Kevin Sloan. A tall fence section (approximately 15 feet high) needed to be cut opened top to bottom to allow responder access and to move patients to staged ambulances. Coordination with patient hospital distribution was handled by our Emergency Medical Liaison Officer assigned to the Office of Unified Communications (DC's Police and Fire Dispatch Center — a joint facility).
During this time, many people who were on the trains, but not injured, were provided with transportation to their homes by Metro Rail. This was a great customer service gesture, but added a degree of difficulty to the search-and-rescue process as it related to accounting for all passengers off of both trains. Once the removal, triage, treatment and transportation of the injured were well in hand, Special Operations began gearing up to conduct a difficult and challenging extrication operation. Deputy Fire Chief Craig Baker was assigned as the Rescue Branch director.