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D.C. Fire Chief: Firefighters Expected a 'Small Incident'

Firefighters on their way to the Metro crash site yesterday they were unaware that there was a horrific fatal collision and thought they were responding to a "small incident," D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin told The Post's Allison Klein.

They initially were dispatched to the two Metro stations -- Takoma Park and Ft. Totten -- before they located the mile marker of the crash. But responders got to the scene within six minutes, Rubin said, and "performed in an exceptional way."

"The instant we laid eyes on it, this was declared a major operation," Rubin said.

A report from the Washington Times said:

Fire officials stated bluntly Monday night that Metro's original description of the accident understated its magnitude, and it was only when the first rescuers arrived at the scene that the sort of help needed was finally summoned.
"A little after five o'clock we responded to what was believed to be a small incident," D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said. "The first arriving company recognized the fact that apparently two trains had collided." Fire officials eventually sounded three alarms, summoning hundreds of rescuers and implementing their mass-casualty operations.

But Rubin told Klein that he did not fault Metro, saying firefighters needed to see the scene for themselves before assessing the severity.

"We are trained professionals," Rubin said. "We do the initial size up. We would never rely on anyone else's word."

This post has been updated since it was originally published.

By Washington Post Editors  |  June 23, 2009; 12:12 PM ET
 
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Comments

I was in the Judiciary Square station, about to board a train north towards Glenmont when the incident took place. Metro only announced over the next 40 minutes that there was a disabled train south of Ft. Totten. That was it, certainly not telling riders the severity of the accident as well. If they couldn't tell of the true scope of the accident to the riders, then it makes perfect sense that they would do the same to the Fire Department.

Posted by: telecomic | June 23, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

when i left the city at around 7pm the only announcement was that a train on the red line had 'mechanical difficulties'

Posted by: bittco | June 23, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Why was it so difficult for metro to know the severity of the situation in a timely manner? Am sure the NTSB will be asking them questions on that little detail.

Posted by: Axel2 | June 23, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

there really is something wrong with the people in DC that appears to have gone on for generations. All people, black and white, have caused this seeming inability or unwillingness to work together even when life threatening disasters occur.

DC is truly a dehumanized city.

It is time to move away to people who can get along with each other.


Posted by: JohnAdams1 | June 23, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I can believe metro understated the problem in order to protect their "reputation." I can also see the Fire Dept. telling the truth. Figures Metro would be mad at the fire department for telling the truth instead of improving their communication with the department. After all, protecting its reputation is much more important that having the proper response to a problem.

Posted by: epjd | June 23, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

The answer is obvious. Just look at the electronic messages Metro is putting out at this very minute. It is clearly the case that somewhere in the Metro Ops Center a relatively short list of disruption titles has been published, hard-coded into a software system, or otherwise distributed to Metro personnel. "Mechanical Failure" was the closest match they could find to describe the catastrophic accident yesterday.

Metro needs a total overhaul of its communications.

For example, there are several entities on Twitter who are putting out info about Metro. The official WMATA outlet, metroopensdoors, is, sadly, not the most useful and reliable source of Metro information. That should be a red flag to the agency.

mvngmonentarily, and unsuckdcmetro were the supreme sources of post-accident info yesterday. And today, Metro is still posting items about a Mechanical Failure and a Disabled train.

Posted by: IHeartDC | June 23, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Responding in a crisis is responding with limited information at a stressful time. say too much you anger everyone. say too much you can start a panic. Metro officials have to do better in communicating with first responders so they can deploy the proper assets. Communicating with the public requires an honest and level-headed response that tells people what they need to know (find another way home) without scaring everyone into a worse situation than the one that already exists.

Posted by: justoneblacktoe | June 23, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

On a positive note, the Metro personnel directing commuters at Silver Spring did a really good job this morning, and the commuters themselves handled the chaos remarkably well. Unfortunately, there was still conflicting information, about the S9 bus specifically. I ended up taking an S2, which took forever, but oh well.

Posted by: maralenenok | June 23, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Metro, Candace Smith...you are so friggin childish. Do you really think we are all good little sheeple with our heads buried in the sand in this region? You got one of the highest educated collections of people in this region. Stop insulting our collective intelligence by dumbing down/downright omitting/lying about stuff like this. People know better, and your spin is what hurts your reputation, not the incidents themselves. Fire fighters tell it like it is. Sad that metro can't follow suit. Damn childish!

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | June 23, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

How much info do you need as a rider? You need to know there's an accident on the Red Line, that a section of track is closed, that shuttles are available, and that you should expect long delays. By the time I entered the system at 6:00, that information was being displayed on the schedule boards. At Foggy Bottom, they actually put little signs on the turnstiles saying "expect major delays." I was surprised they went to that much trouble.

I don't know how things went between Metro and the responding agencies. It's possible the Metro people actually didn't know the severity of the accident - just that there was a collision. I guess the NTSB report will assign blame where it's due.

Posted by: telesonic | June 23, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

It would be farcical if it weren't so outrageous that, almost 8 YEARS after 9/11, Metro and the fire department have communication difficulties!

May God help us in a terrorist attack, which Metro will no doubt describe as a "mechanical difficulty."

DC has clearly done so very little to prepare for a large-scale disaster. We are toast.

Posted by: jay4811 | June 23, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Sorry this is a technical post amidst many other kinds of issues, but I read a considerable amount in the Wash Post about the relays. Relays sticking -- what news. A piece of equipment at work (a lab-sized electron beam ink curer) had a relay that would stick. Had to push it manually sometimes to make the conveyor move. Are RR relays electromechanical? If so, they are very unreliable (as I mentioned). If the RR relays are solid state -- as we all have in our automobiles (the bigger blocks besides the fuses), are these more reliable? Though there are many issues, I would like to see technical reportage about whether solid state or electromechanical relays are use in RR and metro systems. And on how to improve reliability of an electronic device that is the one that always has had the worst reputation: the relay.

Posted by: MarkAldonWeiss | June 23, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what would have been accomplished had Metro published a more accurate account of the incident on it's sign boards.

Do you people think that there should have been something like "Horrific bloody crash of Metro trains at Fort Totten, please take alternate route" would have been better?

I can understand why Metro should have been honest with the fire department, but there is no need to go into details with commuters.

Posted by: 8-man | June 23, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

No need to go into the bloody details 8-man (do you ride Metro on a regular basis?) but I think the announcements should be more indicative of the severity of the situation. The announcements yesterday evening were that there was a "mechanical failutre" on the red line at Ft. Totten. These mechanical failure announcements are rather frequent on Metro, especially during rush hour on any given day. So, to give this announcement certainly did not communicate to passengers to take note, pay attention, reconsider their commute options.

Posted by: metrorider24-7 | June 23, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

People were out of control, shoving and yelling at other people to get out of the way; complaining and going on and on about how crappy Metro is. I don't agree with how people acted, but we were stuck under ground with no cell phone reception, thinking that there was merely a technical difficulty at Van Ness (that is what Metro sent out right before 5pm) and not understanding why something so small could affect the red line so badly. Little did we know what was going on at the other end of the red line. Had people known there was a fatal accident, there would have been a lot more cooperation and understanding on the part of commuters... at least I'd like to think so, but I don't have too much faith in people anymore. Metro was dealing with the situation as best they could and I honestly think they did a good job under the circumstances. I ended up completely out of my way, but eventually found my way home thanks to many patient metro workers who directed us to the appropriate buses. The most important thing is that those of us who were minorly inconvenienced are, at least, alive.

Posted by: StephanieInDC | June 23, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Telesonic: "How much info do you need as a rider? You need to know there's an accident on the Red Line, that a section of track is closed, that shuttles are available, and that you should expect long delays."

That *is* the information I, as a rider, would like to know. That is EXACTLY what I would like to know. And I was standing on the Silver Spring platform for an hour and 20 minutes before Metro said that. Therein lies the problem.

Posted by: EtoilePB | June 23, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

People were out of control, shoving and yelling at other people to get out of the way; complaining and going on and on about how crappy Metro is. I don't agree with how people acted, but we were stuck under ground with no cell phone reception, thinking that there was merely a technical difficulty at Van Ness (that is what Metro sent out right before 5pm) and not understanding why something so small could affect the red line so badly. Little did we know what was going on at the other end of the red line. Had people known there was a fatal accident, there would have been a lot more cooperation and understanding on the part of commuters... at least I'd like to think so, but I don't have too much faith in people anymore. Metro was dealing with the situation as best they could and I honestly think they did a good job under the circumstances. I ended up completely out of my way, but eventually found my way home thanks to many patient metro workers who directed us to the appropriate buses. The most important thing is that those of us who were minorly inconvenienced are, at least, alive.

Posted by: StephanieInDC | June 23, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse


The last sentence of that sums it up.

Instead of assigning blame and being bitter that we were inconvenienced, we should be thankful that we are ok and should be praying for the families of those who have passed and those who are injured.

Posted by: m1ke3i6 | June 23, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Officials are finding clues and victims in Mondays train crash in Washington DC. Amazing multimedia posted too. http://pfx.me/va

Posted by: InformationDesk | June 23, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

This is how Metro operates. They understate the severity of EVERY situation. Even today the announcements were saying "Due to a situation outside of the Fort Totten Station...". An incident? Everyone who's riding the train already knows what happened, just say it, don't try to hide behind some lame euphemisms.

Posted by: grimesman | June 23, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

To johnadams1:
Don't let the door hit you on the way out. Good riddance. What on earth is a "humanized" city. Let us know when you get there.

Posted by: bflorhodes | June 23, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Metro should have made more informative announcements like, "Expect long delays and consider alternate routes". But DC still has one of the best public transit systems in the country. Where I grew up, public transit was so bad that a woman froze to death waiting for a bus.

I know of 7 different ways to get home via bus for just such an emergency. I suggest that everyone learn something about the bus system so you're not caught off guard when Metro rail is not in service.

Posted by: DCFem | June 23, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

All I heard was about the 'train experiencing mechanical difficulties'.

I gotta tell you- thats one hell of a difficulty.

I especially laughed at the alert text my phone beeped with at 1:32 AM announcing the incident had been cleared, thank you for riding Metro... Superman wouldn't be able to clear that track that fast.

There's a lot of egg on Metro's face here, and I hope they realize that it has nothing to do (yet) with what went wrong with the train itself- they really stepped in it with their alert system.

Posted by: GovtMinion | June 23, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

They didn't need to say "horrific bloody crash", but "mechanical failure" was not enough information to get people to plan ahead and consider other ways home.

Arlington County's alert at 6:03PM struck the right balance:
"Metro is reporting a two train collision with multiple casualties at Fort Totten Station. Shuttle service has been established. Expect delays if traveling on the green or red lines.
OEM/LCS"

Posted by: pparrydc | June 23, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Metro needs a HUGE overhaul-- maybe they should borrow some of the old steel NYCity Subway cars -- those things are built like tanks.

Posted by: bronxace | June 23, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Metro was justified in not providing explicit information to those of us who were not directly affected by the crash. To immediately inform all Metro riders that there had been a "horrific accident" on the Red Line would have only sparked mass panic.

That said, I am *not* defending Metro's lack of open communication with rescue response teams or worried friends and family members. Every person taken to the hospital should have been identified (if possible) on-site, and that information should have immediately been put into an electronic database so that Metro/DC local officials knew the number and severity of injuries *and* so that we could find out which hospital was caring for our injured friends or family members.

Posted by: eristeleute | June 23, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

"This is how Metro operates. They understate the severity of EVERY situation."

Very true. Not far from the accident took place, there was a drainage/track issue earlier this spring. Trains had to slow down during the stretch. WMATA never mentioned the problem until they had scheduled a time to fix the problem.

Metro has a world class website, in-station displays, text messages, station managers with walkie-talkers, improving PA speakers. The system is there. What isn't is a consideration for telling the truth.

Posted by: cprferry | June 23, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

"This is how Metro operates. They understate the severity of EVERY situation."

Very true. Not far from the accident took place, there was a drainage/track issue earlier this spring. Trains had to slow down during the stretch. WMATA never mentioned the problem until they had scheduled a time to fix the problem.

Metro has a world class website, in-station displays, text messages, station managers with walkie-talkers, improving PA speakers. The system is there. What isn't is a consideration for telling the truth.

Posted by: cprferry | June 23, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Metro was able to go a long time with very few major accidents. I think that the incidents of the last year or so show us how the system is starting to age after 30 years. Hopefully folks will see our transportation system infrastructure as a real role of government/taxpayer funds and divert some of that cash for clunkers and home buyers funds back into up grading the Metro and other mass transit systems around our great country.

I have a feeling the initial 911 callers from Metro gave the dispatchers what information they had. The driver of the rear train was not really able to make a report, and the driver of the front train was six cars ahead of the crash, the rest of Metro's employees were not there. DC Fire seems to have done a wonderful job, and Metro did the best that they could with what they had.

I realize it is frustrating waiting to find out why your way home is not working, but there was also no purpose in announcing to the entire system that their was a major collision on the tracks either. Metro should be commended for the great service that they provide. They remain the best mass transit system in the country, at least in the eyes of this biased DC Native.

Posted by: OneHillStaffer | June 23, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Put nicely, metro calling for help-- they weren't there. They weren't aware of the severity. Probably a passenger on a train called it in on the emergency phone or the other train operator that might not have been able to grasp the full impact of the crash.

What is important is that lives were saved, and injuries were treated and they got the personel they needed out there and took care of the situation.

Sure it was an inconvience to many of us, but if you knew someone on that train you wouldn't think of it as an inconvience. Metro took immediate safety procautions slowing the other trains and making sure it wasn't some more severe in the automatic operating trains. And today they took measures to allow more time and space between trains to prevent more from happening. They have done a good job.

Posted by: choc_aid | June 23, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

In the immediate aftermath, I should think the only direct info that WMATA had was essentially from WMATA employees who saw the crash or its aftermath, or perhaps the *struck* train operator who was calling to report an impact (assuming he-she was conscious).

I would hope the lion's share of details the FD received was via the 911 system relaying info from victims and bystanders who called vs. info from WMATA. If not, then the 911/emergency folks are more to blame for a lack of relevant info, since I should think the 911 callers from the train who were right there were providing fairly detailed info about dead or dying people.

Sounds like someone in the fire dept. wants to undermine the Metro folks, to me.

Posted by: Fallen1 | June 23, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Metro utterly failed in its obligation to keep passengers informed. Communications is not a nicety or a courtesy; it is perhaps the most important safety measure Metro can take.

Passengers who know what is going on can take appropriate action; passengers who are left "guessing" what's happening are just going to cause more problems by doing the WRONG things.

I shudder to think what WMATA's communication plan is in case of a terrorist attack, particularly a kind of attack we may not have seen before. Will Metro make an informative announcement so we can take the correct action (e.g. get out at the next station and get aboveground), or will they softpedal us with a "Police Activity at Metro Center. Expect delays."?

Posted by: xckq | June 23, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Agreed, pparrydc. More information from WMATA than "mechanical failure" would have been helpful.

I recently returned from visiting London. In our travels on the Underground, we were alerted to suspended service on a portion of the Piccadilly line. The reason was articulated clearly on both the station noticeboards and over the PA: it was due to a "person under a train" at one of the stations. Not a pleasant thought, but it was a clear enough message to lead my companion and me to assume correctly that the situation would be ongoing for some time and that we should seek alternate routes to our destination.

"Mechanical failure" is vague enough to lead people to believe they can wait it out or that their commute may be slower (e.g. due to single tracking) but otherwise unchanged. I don't think simply calling it an "accident" would have caused a panic, but it would have alerted commuters to the seriousness of the situation, that it had the potential to last some time, and that they should anticipate major delays and/or should find other ways to get where they need to go.

Posted by: cynicalscribe | June 23, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

This is amazing. 9 People died and you are complaining about not getting home in time for Jeopardy? I bet most of you used it as an excuse not to go to work today too.

Posted by: mbh2 | June 23, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

For years, Maryland, Virginia and DC bicker over petty issues because one jurisdiction doesn't want to pay for something that benefits the other jurisdiction. They are NEVER willing to pony up the money needed to keep this system safe. Metro is forced to skimp along without the needed money. But do you think ANY politician will admit to any negligence on their part?

Posted by: jeffhert | June 23, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I dont think these people are complaining about being home in time for Jeopardy, they are complaining about Metro's complete disregard for the passenger. Why couldnt Metro be more forthcoming about what was going on?

Posted by: lpgaithersburg | June 23, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

So long, JohnAdams1. Washington could use one less angry resident. In the midst of this tragedy, I will remember the stories of the unsung heroes - other passengers who helped their fellow passengers; the hundreds of firefighters and first responders who worked into to night looking for victims; and the medical personnel ready at local hospitals to treat the survivors. If that's not "getting along" then what is?

Posted by: msinwdc | June 23, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Enough w/ the Metro bashing, people. Their mistakes are about to be an open book, but are largely due to budget constraints we all own a piece of the responsibility for.

BUT if approaching driver has just DIED in the crash, and if the other train's driver is some six cars to the front, then there was no one else to report to Metro HQ what just happened.

My hunch is the front driver began w/ methodical walk backward through the cars, rather than exiting the train and leaving passengers inside . . . that, in itself, could have taken several minutes.

Posted by: ewkrause | June 23, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

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