Amanda Ripley

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DC Train Crash

22nd Jun 2009 posted in General

Horrific story from the evening commute here in DC. One Red Line Metrorail train slammed into another, plowing into it from behind with enough force to launch it up on top of the other train. The Washington Post is reporting at least 6 deaths and an estimated 70 injuries. The collision happened between two stations just south of the border between DC and Maryland. No idea yet what caused the accident.

But it’s already clear that as in most sizeable emergencies, regular people did the hardest work in the most important moments—before rescue workers arrived. Getting out of a wrecked subway train is extremely difficult. Between the darkness (due to the loss of power) and the twisted cage of metal, it is very hard to get oriented.

It doesn’t help that subway cars in general are challenging to evacuate. If you’ve ever looked at the instructions for escaping from a Metro train, you’ll see what I mean. It involves finding the center door, lifting the cover of an emergency door-release handle, pulling the lever and then sliding open the LEFT (not right) door. If you want to know more, you can check out this very irritating Flash animation on the WMATA site. As with many of the announcements on the Metro, a good deal of time is spent telling you to listen to the people in charge (even though, in major emergencies, the people in charge are unlikely to be able to help you for a good long while).

One eye witness told the Washington Post that people inside one of the wrecked cars were beating on the windows, trying to get out. Many were on their cell phones. As is so often the case in disasters, people did remarkable things for one another. Survivors report fear, confusion and kindness—but not panic:

“In the moments after the crash, passengers made tourniquets out of T-shirts, struggled to pull debris off others and sought to calm the hysterical and the gravely wounded. Inside the worst-hit car, waiting on ambulances and the “jaws of life,” an Anglican priest led a group in the Lord’s Prayer. On the ground below, a civilian Pentagon employee told a wounded girl he wouldn’t accept her last wish—she was going to live.”

I’m struck by the similarities to the behavior of passengers in London after the 7/7 transit bombings in 2005. This description is from the foreword to the invaluable Report of the 7 July Review Committee:

“What is clear is that the humanitarian response to these events was astounding; from the passengers who helped and supported each other, to the underground workers, ‘blue light’ response teams, shop staff, office workers, hotel employees and passers-by who offered what help they could. The individual acts of bravery and courage are too numerous to list. Often the heroes have been reticent to come forward and have stayed silent about the role they played, known only to those that they helped.”

But the part of this report that I think of most often is the section that explains the fundamental flaw of most emergency plans. We don’t know yet whether this lesson applied today in DC, but it’s worth repeating. I have yet to see a big disaster in which this was not true on some level:

“There is an overarching, fundamental lesson to be learnt from the response to the 7 July attacks, which underpins most of our findings and recommendations. The response on 7 July demonstrated that there is a lack of consideration of the individuals caught up in major or catastrophic incidents. Procedures tend to focus too much on incidents, rather than on individuals and on processes rather than people. Emergency plans tend to cater for the
needs of the emergency and other responding services, rather than explicitly addressing the needs and priorities of the people involved
.”