So, there was a fire on the Longfellow Bridge last Friday night and I happened
to be in it en route to Flattop Johnny's.
The Red Line train pulled into the Charles/MGH station around 7:45pm and
stopped. There was a horrible smell, like singed hydraulic fluid or maybe
burning plastic. I closed Satanic Verses and scrunched up my nose. Someone on
the train yelled that there was a fire. I looked out the window and saw black
smoke billowing out from the Park Street end of the train. I couldn't tell if
the smoke was actually coming from the train, the platform, or somewhere else
on the bridge.
The doors on the train opened as usual. There were some mildly flashing
emergency lights and sounds, but nothing very exciting. It smelled and looked
terrible but I guessed that it wasn't that big of a deal. Still, it clearly was
a fire and it clearly was close by. Nobody on the train knew what to do, which
wasn't surprising since no instructions had been given by the train crew. The
fact that the doors had opened seemed like an invitation, so I stepped off the
train and looked down the platform. I was close to the opposite end of the
train from the fire, and would have had to walk toward the smoke to get to the
stairs. That didn't seem like the best idea. Plus it wasn't my stop. So I
After a couple minutes, one of the conductors (are subway train drivers
conductors?) came walking down the platform toward the smoke. "Don't worry,
it's on the other side," he said. "Just get back on the train and we'll be
leaving the station momentarily."
Well, that's good. I got back on the train, but as I was stepping back onto the
train, I almost collided with a young woman trying to get off the train.
"They're evacuating the train," she said.
"No," I said, "the guy just told us that it was on the other side, and that we
should get back on the train."
We shared confusion and stayed on the train.
Then there was an announcement over the loudspeaker. It was from a different
conductor and went something like, "Ladies and Gentlemen, nice and easy, please
evacuate the train and exit the station down the stairs, and await instructions
I exited the train along with everyone else, and meandered partway down the
platform. On the way I passed the two dueling conductors, who were now hunched
together over a radio listening. There were some people just hanging out by the
benches, and I thought that since the conductors didn't seem to be in any
particular rush to evacuate and there were still people after me, I'd just hang
out for a minute and see what the deal was.
Within a couple minutes, the conductor came over the loudspeaker again. "Ladies
and Gentlemen, this train will be leaving momentarily. If you'll get on the
train we'll be on our way shortly."
I got back on the train, and sure enough, we left without incident. But a few
days later, some thoughts about it are still lingering.
One, if there was a fire in the station, why is it that we entered the station
at all? The smoke was black and not particularly hard to see. Apparently
some other passengers tried to point this out.
Two, once we were in the station and it turned out to be on fire, why exactly
did the train remain in the station? Perhaps, the train should have left
without opening the doors. I'm sure the people who intended to exit at
Charles/MGH did not intend to exit if there were a fire there, and would have
happily accepted an alternative non-flaming ride from Kendall to reach their
Third, how is it that the conductors failed to make an immediate announcement
over the loudspeaker to the effect of, "Ladies and Gentlemen, you may have
noticed that there is a fire in the station. Please remain calm where you are
and we will give you instructions momentarily." It was three or four minutes
before anyone said anything over the loudspeaker. The guy who before that told
us to get back on the train did so in a tone that was only a little louder than
conversational. The MBTA is very fortunate that the passengers were sensible
and did not take matters into their own panicked hands, because there was
plenty of uncomfortably uncertain time for some idiot to get excited and ruin
things for the whole gaggle.
Fourth, is this the kind of treatment we get after all of the millions of
dollars invested in Homeland Security? Two guys and a support system who
apparently have no procedure to follow in the event of a fire and end up giving
contradictory instructions? And a substantial delay before any kind of response
At least the loudspeaker on this train was working. Well, in my car anyway. We
all know how common that is.
In the end, it was no big deal. They probably screwed a lot of people, because
the passengers who actually listened to the conductors ended up at the bottom
of the platform, even though the train left shortly after, and I know that the
train was substantially less crowded leaving than it was arriving. I'm sure
alternative transportation was arranged, but I know that they closed train
service and started running buses all the way from Broadway to Harvard, so it
Maybe there is an explanation for all of this. I'd like to know what it was,
because as it stands I don't have so much faith in the T's ability to handle
emergency situations. I'm not trying to lay blame with the individual
conductors, but this is not a system I want to be stuck in a tunnel with —
imagining a similar situation occurring underground is quite scary. The
minorness of the incident really just makes me worry more.
On the upside, the new SMS T-Alert system seemed to work reasonably well. I
received the first notice about the problem within a few minutes of me texting
friends who might be affected about it, and there were updates throughout the