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Firsthand Account: Union Members Evacuate Metro Riders Seamlessly

Photo via @PoPville/Twitter.

On Tuesday night, I left the AFL-CIO offices in downtown Washington, D.C., hopped a bus to Columbia Heights and planned to transfer to another bus and make my way home. The wait was 15 minutes, though, and I knew that to take the Metro at Columbia Heights station one stop to the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station, the one closest to my house, and the walk afterward would take a little less time. So I jumped on the train, which was waiting for me in the station, and got ready for a train ride that normally takes less than five minutes. Two hours later, when I walked out of the Georgia Avenue station, amid the emergency vehicles, most I've ever seen in my life, needless to say, I wasn't having the best night of my life.

It could have been a lot worse. But quickly, union members stepped in and made sure that what could have been a dangerous ordeal was safe and orderly for the passengers caught in the tunnel.

Seconds after we left the Columbia Heights station, the air conditioner shut off, quickly followed by the train beginning to slow down and stop a few seconds later. We would later find out the third rail had some kind of problem that shut down all of the trains from U Street and Fort Totten, most likely because of a failure at the Georgia Avenue Station. The passengers in my car stayed in good spirits while waiting nearly an hour and a half in that spot. Train operators kept us in the know with announcements, and WMATA employees, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, periodically came through the trains to check on us and make sure no one had an emergency. Eventually, we were told the evacuation plan was beginning and there were other trains and people ahead of us to be helped out of the tunnels first.

After about an hour and a half, the lights went out in the train, but nearly instantly firefighters and EMS personnel, from Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 36, jumped into action, opening our car door and directing us out of the train and the quarter of a mile on foot to the Georgia Avenue station. If you've never been in Washington, D.C.'s metro tunnels outside of a train, these aren't exactly places designed for rush-hour pedestrians, tired from a full day at work. The tunnels are dark and they're designed for trains, so protrusions, tracks, the potentially deadly third rail and the occasional rat were among the hazards we had to navigate. 

But things went very smoothly. Firefighters and other union members made sure that the tunnels were safe before we got out of the train and they lined the entire tunnel from train to exit, to make sure that nobody got hurt and that those who needed assistance got it. The whole process was very orderly, and it was clear that the people helping us out of the tunnel not only knew exactly what they were doing, but that they cared enough to not only make sure that we were safe, but that the passengers were calm and reassured in what could have been a frightening, and dangerous, situation if they didn't know what they were doing.

So on behalf of the hundreds of people who were helped out of the trains trapped in the tunnels, we'd like to thank the firefighters, transit employees and EMS workers who helped make sure that a five-hour train stoppage was limited to a two-hour, well-handled and safe evacuation.

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