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Fire in the hole [24 Dec 2007|12:00pm]

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 stayed put.

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 there."


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 destination.

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 all?

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 probably sucked.

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 evening.

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