By Kevin Sloan
Shortly after 1700 hours on June 22, 2009, a Metro Station Box was sounded for the report of a train derailment at the Takoma Park Station. This is not an unusual incident for a large metro-area transit system slightly more than 30 years old, and the District of Columbia Fire/EMS Department (DCFD) responds to a variety of incidents involving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) subway system and its millions of riders annually.
The system consists of surface, subsurface, and aerial stations with connecting service yards and large maintenance facilities. The tracks run in secured right-of-ways that are either dedicated or shared with commercial rail right-of-ways that run along one side or both sides of the Metro rails.
The trains are powered by an electrified third rail carrying 750 volts of direct current. Each train consists of three “married pairs,” or six individual cars, for a combined length of approximately 450 feet. During peak hours, these trains can carry hundreds of commuters to and from the city at peak speeds of 50 to 55 miles per hour on the surface-level tracks.
The initial response for a station incident such as this is five engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue squad, two battalion chiefs (BCs), the Special Operations BC, one basic life support ambulance, one advanced life support ambulance, an EMS supervisor, and the safety officer. The first BC responds to the scene as the incident commander (IC), the second BC responds to the Metro Operations Center as a liaison officer, and the Special Operations BC handles operations within the station or at the track/platform level.
Almost immediately, responding units began to get mobile data terminal updates of additional injuries, as the passengers began calling 911 on their cell phones. Communications then began receiving conflicting information of the derailment being farther south, between the Takoma Park Station and the Fort Totten Station. Then reports came of an actual train collision, followed by the reports of one train on top of another.
Responders began to feel a sense of urgency. As a precaution, the alarm was upgraded to a response for an incident between stations. That brought an additional two engines, one truck, and one BC to the Fort Totten Station.
As the first units arrived at the initial station, other units responding from the south located the accident site and updated the IC that the actual location was just north of the Fort Totten Station and confirmed that a Metro train had run into the rear of another, causing the first car of the striking train to override the last car of the train, which was not moving (photo 1).
(1) Photo 1 courtesy of Google Earth; photos 2-14 by Elliot J. Goodman.
The incident site itself would prove to be one of the biggest challenges the firefighters had to face that day. The collision occurred just south of the New Hampshire Avenue overpass, although the length of both trains would cover nearly 1,000 feet of track. The site was bordered on the west by a 40-foot wooded uphill embankment and to the east by a row of commercial warehouses, on 2nd Street, at the bottom of a 30-foot downhill embankment. The Fort Totten Station was a quarter-mile south, with no viable access points to the right-of-way; however, there was an “at-grade” access point approximately 100 yards north of the train at the dead end of Oglethorpe Street.
The surface right-of-way was configured so that the commercial rails (CSX) ran on either side of the Metro tracks. There was a security fence along the outside of the CSX right-of-way and another security fence with intermittent access gates separating the Metro rails from the commercial railroad.
The point of the impact was directly adjacent to a traction power substation at the dead end of 2nd Street (photo 2). Crews accessing the site from the east had to make their way between the buildings, up the embankment, and through the fences to the impact site.
Reports continued to come in from Communications and the responding units that had located the incident site. Reports of smoke and fire as well as numerous serious injuries prompted specialty units, fire/EMS senior staff, and the Operations deputy chief to respond to the incident. Both of DCFD’s Mass Casualty Task Forces were requested, which consist of specially trained fire units and medical ambulance buses. A full second alarm was sounded to bring additional resources and a full complement of the department’s heavy rescue squads, which included the collapse/confined space rescue team. The Fire Operations Center was activated and run by senior staff as a clearinghouse for resource management, logistical support, and emergency recall of off-duty personnel.
Although several of the initial responding units reported to the access point at Oglethorpe Street and began making their way to the impact site, the units on the secondary station assignment that arrived at the 2nd Street access point made entry to the right-of way first. The Special Operations BC notified Command of the best access and that any additional units should stage on the 2nd Street side of the incident.
Metro Transit Police officers had arrived with the fire units and began to use bolt cutters to access the CSX right-of-way. Battalion 1, the BC assigned to the secondary station, reached the impact site along with the Special Operations BC and several units including Rescue Squad 2, which had entered at Oglethorpe and carried heavy rescue tools some 300 yards to the impact site.
The scene that met rescuers was dramatic. The front car of the striking train had impacted the last car of a “parked” train. The “anti-climb” or comb plates interlocked, preventing the cars from running over the stationary train; however, the forward momentum of the striking train caused the floor to separate from the metal skin of the car. The skin, which consisted of the walls and ceiling, began moving up and over the stationary car while all of the heavy equipment that normally hangs beneath the floor was pushed up into the passenger compartment (photos 3, 4, and 5).
Those passengers sitting forward of the front truck assembly in the striking car were crushed in place or pinned in the wreckage against the top rear of the stationary train. Those sitting between the trucks or wheels rode up with the floor and seats and were thrown out on top of the stationary car or to the track bed inside the security fence on the west side of the train (photo 6). Those sitting over or behind the rear truck assembly were not as seriously injured.
The IC and several of the initial responding units were out of position, others were self-deploying to the scene, and critical decisions needed to be made immediately. The best course of action was for BC 1 to assume command at the impact site, to oversee all track level operations, while the Special Operations BC assumed the Rescue Branch to direct the extrication and recovery of the trapped or pinned passengers.
Initial actions included the following:
Establish a command post.The New Hampshire Avenue Bridge was recommended to the IC and the Operations deputy chief as the best place to set up a unified command post. It was immediately above the incident site and provided adequate space for security, access for agency heads, representatives of the press, and political figures (photo 7).
Ensure incident scene safety. The initial action at all Metro incidents is to ensure the third rail power is down. Although that was verified by our liaison BC at the Metro Operations Center, units still deployed warning strobe alarm devices (WSADs) (photo 8) on all electrified rail sections within 1,000 or so feet of the trains. These devices monitor third-rail power and sound an audible/visual alarm if power returns unexpectedly. In fact, fire and police personnel had to deploy four of these devices to cover all sections of the rail involved.
The CSX Rail Emergency Center was immediately contacted and advised to stop all traffic along the Metropolitan Sub-Division, which includes freight service and passenger/commuter traffic. Other units were deployed far north and south of the incident site as flagging companies, to stop and report any train movement.
Implement accountability. Our standard operating guidelines mandate level III accountability on all Metro incidents, whether above or below ground. This is accomplished by a designated company using an entry control point. The Metro right-of-way was accessed by a sliding gate in the security fence. The track operations command post was set up inside the gate, and instructions were given to not cut or breach the security fence on the east side. This provided a single point of access to control unit deployment, account for personnel entering the work site, deny entry to unauthorized personnel, and keep any passengers from wandering away without being triaged.
Ensure incident scene security.A transit police official was requested at the scene and reported to the access control point quickly. The Metro police remained there throughout the incident to assist in deploying and coordinating officer activity, provide scene security, and check credentials of other police agencies reporting at the entry control point. It was decided early on that transit police would handle securing the incident site (the area within the railroad right-of-way) and the Metropolitan Police would handle all other police functions outside of the incident site. The senior police command officers were directed to the unified command post.
Because most of the seriously injured passengers from the striking car were thrown onto and inside the security fence on the west side of the train, units had to cut through the security fence in several locations (photo 9). Transit officers were deployed to secure the perimeter, keep passengers from wandering away before triage, and ultimately assist in the evacuation.
The transit police were tasked with keeping the ambulatory passengers on the train but away from the two cars involved in the collision. They were to keep the passengers together until a fire department member could triage them.
First-in engine and truck companies were deployed based on their unit assets and order of arrival to the Triage, Suppression, and Evacuation Branches. Their location and activity were then reported to Command when they arrived and set up the Operations Section at the unified command post.
The first-arriving engine deployed a charged hoseline in the event of a fire. Second-alarm companies were tasked with logistical support to the Rescue and Evacuation Branches. Their primary function was to haul in extrication equipment, stokes litters, shoring, and ladders. They also performed the arduous task of victim evacuation, sometimes carrying victims long distances over difficult terrain (photo 10).
The primary function of the initial firefighting units was triage. Several paramedic engine companies played a vital role in the survival of the most critical patients. Fire and EMS members used triage ribbons to prioritize injuries (photo 11). The initial treatment area was set up at the 2nd Street location, where members treated six critically injured patients. DCFD ambulances staged at that location immediately transported the patients.
As the evacuation effort began, it became apparent that rescue personnel would not be able to effectively move the more than 100 passengers through a hole in a fence and down a steep embankment to a street with little or no drive-through access. The decision was made to establish a west treatment area at the Oglethorpe access location. It was better suited to handle a large number of patients because of its large, open area and grade-level access to the railbed. Transport units were easily staged, and egress was facilitated by larger traffic arteries to and from the scene. In the end, 80 patients were treated and transported from that site. To accommodate the large number of patients, additional medical ambulance buses were requested from surrounding jurisdictions along with two medivac helicopters and mutual-aid relief companies. All patients were treated, accounted for, and transported to medical facilities within 90 minutes following the collision.
Following the evacuation of the last ambulatory passengers, teams of transit officers and the battalion aide conducted a detailed search inside, under, and in the areas surrounding the trains to ensure that no one was left behind. A short while later, a third and final search was conducted using Metropolitan Police teams.
Secondary actions included the following:
Preliminary investigation meeting.Within the first 60 minutes, all of the investigating agencies were on-scene and anxious to begin the preliminary accident investigation. An initial meeting with representatives of these agencies was organized at the track operations command post. A list of each agency’s needs and objectives was recorded and a preliminary plan of action was developed that would allow the investigation to begin while allowing the rescue personnel to continue the recovery effort. Each operated in support of the others’ missions. Rescue would stop to allow for the collection of evidence and documentation of the scene before it was altered or destroyed, and investigative agencies would stand down to allow the recovery operation to proceed. At one point, the operation was stopped so CSX could move five stranded commuter rail trains past the site in a controlled manner. The agencies represented were the Metro Transit Police, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Transit Administration, CSX, the Emergency Management Agency, and the DC Medical Examiner’s Office.
Lighting.By the end of the evacuation process, it became obvious that this would be an extended operation. Our Community Service Units and supervising lieutenant were enlisted to reach out to various agencies for lighting resources. In the end, the DC Department of Transportation, Public Works, and the DC National Guard responded with portable lighting and generators. A temporary road was built at the end of 2nd Street, and trees were cut down to facilitate access for light towers. The DCFD’s heavy rescue crane was even able to hoist/lower a light tower down to the track bed (photo 12).
CISD and relief.The DCFD chaplain reported to the scene to administer last rites to the deceased and provide initial critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) as units reported to rehab. Later the chaplain was on hand to comfort relatives who came to the scene looking for loved ones who were believed to have been on the train that evening.
Coordination with rail safety personnel.Contact was made with transit safety personnel. A designee remained at the track operations command post for the duration to provide invaluable assistance with institutional knowledge and access to authority. He coordinated the permanent take down of power or “tag out” so power could not be brought back unintentionally. The power grid was physically disconnected by a transit electrician at the Tie-Breaker Station. This is a must for any prolonged rescue/recovery or repair operation.
The Special Operations BC was the initial Rescue Branch director. The primary focus of the rescue effort was on the roof of the stationary train. Members of Rescue Squad 2, supported initially by firefighting units and later by other special operations units, found several severely injured passengers on the roof and pinned in the stacked wreckage of the striking car near the top of the stationary car (photo 13). The skin of the striking car had to be stabilized with shores while members worked as quickly as possible to extricate the pinned passengers.
The rescue effort took less than an hour to remove all viable patients. The search and recovery of the remaining five victims took much longer to accomplish. With the use of urban search and rescue equipment, including the department’s search dog, rescuers were able to locate the last five victims severely pinned within the wreckage. It would take until 1000 hours the next day to free them and required the use of a 150,000-ton crane brought in from Richmond. The crane drove to the Alexandria, Virginia, rail yards, where it was able to then “high-rail” up to the accident site. Crews then used torches to detach the metal skin of the train and lift it away (photo 14). Only then could rescue crews cut away the heavy metal machinery and free the final victims.
- Remain alert when responding to rail incidents. Locations and information are often vague, especially when called in by passengers who are not aware of their surroundings. Check updates on mobile data terminals often.
- The initial stages of a mass-casualty rail event can be confusing and chaotic. Individual units should refrain from calling Command once a chief officer has reached the incident site. Location and size-up information is best updated from a single source.
- Preplanning of railroad facilities and right-of-way familiarization in your local alarm district are the best ways to minimize response times.
- Ensure scene safety first. Do not get caught up in obvious rescues until a size-up and risk assessment are complete and all departmental safety procedures and guidelines have been followed, especially in electrified rail right-of-ways.
- Identify hazards early, and reduce personal protective equipment as soon as possible to limit heat stress and fatigue.
- Having a localized site/track operations commander was effective in controlling the arrival, deployment, and accountability of initial resources. Although staging and tactically deploying resources in a controlled manner are optimum, the arrival and self-deployment of units at the scene of a rail collision may necessitate a more rapid method of strategic command and control.
- Contact a police official (if the incident is in a transit system, contact a transit officer or an officer having jurisdiction at the accident scene). A supervisor can facilitate communications, direct actions of officers, and secure the site and keep passengers from leaving. Direct senior police officials to the IC or unified command post.
- Set up a hard perimeter around the work area, and maintain control using a single point of access.
- Maintain contact numbers for all rail operator control centers or emergency centers in your jurisdiction. Contacting them directly is more efficient than relaying through a communications or dispatch center.
- Call for additional resources as early as possible. Initial responders will be overwhelmed or exhausted and need relief sooner than you expect.
- If heavy lift cranes are required for rescue or recovery, keep in mind they may have to come from a distance and will be slow to deploy because of railroad access limitations and regulations.
- Triage methods vary, but fire units and treatment crews remarked that making “necklaces” out of the ribbons was expeditious and worked extremely well.
- Ambulance transport unit crew members should resist going to the incident site. Ambulance crews should remain in the treatment area and allow firefighters or designated police officers to lead or bring victims to them.
- Announce to passengers at the time of triage that they may voluntarily refuse treatment and be released to continue on their way in buses provided by the transit or rail authority.
- Allow only authorized transport vehicles in the Transport Area. Responding officials and rail workers will congest access/egress routes with service vehicles.
- Designate apparatus staging and parking areas where they will not hinder operations.
- Initiate a permanent take down or “tag out” of the power grid supplying the electrified rail or catenary, and coordinate with rail safety personnel as early into the incident as possible.
Response to rail collisions or emergencies can be one of the most challenging incidents to command and control without the dynamics of mass transportation. The smallest event will involve multiple agencies and, in all likelihood, require a multijurisdictional response.
This incident was largely successful because the DCFD, in conjunction with its regional partners and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, has tirelessly worked on standard operating guidelines, familiarization, skills training, and mass-casualty simulations. In the end, it was the selfless dedication to duty and the tireless efforts of the first responders that proved to be the greatest assets in this operation.
KEVIN SLOAN is a member of the District of Columbia Fire Department with 30 years of fire service experience. He is a battalion chief assigned to the Operations Division, 1st Battalion. He has an associate degree in fire science from Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, and a B.S. degree in fire service management from the University of Maryland in College Park.