Extreme Heat Blamed in Metro Derailment

Barrington M. Salmon | 7/11/2012, 11:54 a.m.

Metro officials closed the track between Fort Totten and Prince George's Plaza and it remained that way as Metro investigators tried to determine the cause of the accident. Early in the investigation, officials speculated that heat might well have been a factor or the cause since hot weather can cause train tracks to swell or buckle.

Last week, residents in the Washington metro area endured brutal triple-digit weather from mid-week into the weekend. Some meteorologists say that this has been the hottest span of weather on record and there's much more expected in the dog days of summer ahead.

Prince George's County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said 95 firefighters on the scene - 24-25 of them in the tunnel and on the track - assisted the stranded passengers. He said it took about 45 minutes to one hour from the time the dispatcher received the call to the time it took to coordinate the evacuation and bring the passengers above ground.

Firefighters and Metro employees helped the passengers get out of the affected cars and led them to safety. They exited from the train tracks through an escape hatch at the intersection of Ager Road and 29th Avenue. Emergency personnel, police officers and Prince George's County officials set up a temporary station near the fan shaft, and several television trucks sat nearby in an area fenced off with yellow tape.

The fire chief said the passengers had to travel about 100 feet to get the fan shaft, and the distance from the derailment to the station was between 1,000 and 3,000 feet.

Emergency personnel set up a triage area for the evacuated passengers, Bashoor said, with the focus being on accessing injuries, treating them if necessary and ensuring that both passengers and emergency personnel stayed as cool and as hydrated as possible in the 100-degree heat and humidity. The passengers were taken by bus to the West Hyattsville Metro station.

"We dispatched additional units and had an air-conditioned bus and a [mobile] canteen with snacks. We operated in 15-minute shifts and rotated people in and out," Bashoor said.

Down the street, Metro and Prince George's County police cordoned off the train station and parking lot. A Metro Transit Mobile Command truck was parked in front of the station, while commuters clambered out of vehicles in the station's drop-off zone. A few solitary cars dotted the parking lot and police officers in twos and threes kept an eye on things.

At the Fort Totten station, riders sat in the grass in front of the station seeking shelter from the sweltering heat. Others took refuge under an underpass also located near the front of the station entrance. Long lines of displaced passengers waited for buses and shuttles to West Hyattsville and Prince George's Plaza Station, while police and extra Metro staff helped with crowd control.

There appeared to be some confusion between bus drivers and station staff as to what shuttles were parked where, and increasingly impatient commuters appeared visibly upset with the lack of communication between Metro employees and themselves.

Brandon Catron, also of Greenbelt, Md., was not in a very forgiving mood for this, the latest Metro mishap.

"It's getting very aggravating," said Catron, 48. "As a matter of fact, I'm getting tired of paying all of the money that we're paying for this service that's not so good. They definitely need to do something about it."

Catron was referring to new Metro fares which went into effect on July 1 and his complaints echoed those of significant swathes of Metro riders who have tired of the broken and faulty escalators, delays, derailments and a host of other problems.

Metro's latest mishap left Peggye Mason shaking her head.

"It's a mess. It's a mess. I think that they should have been more prepared than they are," said Mason, 46, who lives in Hyattsville.

"It's like every other day there's something. If it's not Metro, then it's Pepco. They just need to get all of this stuff together. It's just a mess. It's too hot out here, they should be more prepared."

WI Staff Writer Elton Hayes and WI Staff Researcher Stacey Palmer contributed to this story.