Friday, November 6, 2009

How many Septa regional rail workers does it take to help passengers off a burning railroad car?


At least that's what I heard last night from a passenger who was aboard the Septa regional rail train that caught fire on its way from the Overbrook station into 30th Street station on Wednesday morning.

You can read the full CBS 3 report of the incident here:

Here's a snippet:

SEPTA officials confirmed that several minutes before flames erupted, smoke had been detected inside the train at the Overbrook Station stop. However, after disconnecting a power supply and moving passengers out of the first car, the train was permitted to continue its trip.
Then a mile down the tracks, the first car was fully engulfed in flames.
"Obviously had an open flame been detected at any point, the procedure would have been quite different. The train would have been completely evacuated," SEPTA's Assistant General Manager for Public and Operational Safety James Jordan explained.

Well, that doesn't quite mesh with the story Barb from PNC (who was actually in the second car of the burning train) tells.

People were indeed moved out of the first car into the second, Barb tells me, but no announcement was made about why.

They sat somewhere between Overbrook and 30th Street stations for what seemed a long time.
The passengers waited, crammed into the second and subsequent cars --many of them standing since there weren't enough seats.

But then the amount of smoke billowing in to the car started to alarm them. (From the cell phone photo Barb showed me, they were soon to be engulfed by smoke.)
Did the conductors make an announcement then -- either to direct the passengers or allay their fears?

Nope. According to Barb, not a word made its way to the passengers from any Septa staff.

Eventually -- Barb couldn't give me an estimate of how long it took -- the passengers became alarmed enough to start pounding on the windows, and after some effort, popped open the emergency window and started exiting the second car of the train.

Barb saw the Septa personnel already standing on the railroad bed, well away from the train -- her car's conductor with his hands firmly planted in his pockets.

The Septa staff didn't move from where they were standing, even as they watched the passengers emerge from the emergency window, she says.

The drop from the emergency exit window to the railroad bed below was unexpectedly long. Even Barb, who is fairly tall, couldn't be reached by the up-stretched arms of the passengers who had exited before her. She had to trust that she'd be caught after she dropped. She was.

"The passengers were such Good Samaritans," she says to me.

They helped the elderly passengers evacuate through the emergency windows by carrying them over sill and dropping them onto the sea of passengers waiting to catch them.

You notice, of course, that Barb's account is all about the passengers waiting to catch each other as they evacuated from the smoke-filled car. Not a single member of the Septa personnel moved to help them, Barb says.

What's more, they said nothing to any of the passengers after the self-evacuation, Barb tells. Nothing, that is, until the buses came to retrieve the passengers from Overbrook to take them into Center City. At which point, Barb tells me (with plenty of both irony and outrage) the Septa staffer in charge yelled at the passengers to "behave like adults."

As this Septa strike has played out, I haven't overheard much sympathy for the striking workers from my fellow passengers waiting on the platforms at 30th Street or Suburban stations. Still, I haven't heard all that much grousing either.

I've observed that the regional rail trains drive extra slow through the stations that would normally be served by the striking Septa union workers -- then resume normal speed once they're in territory where the services don't overlap. Septa regional rail personnel are part of a separate union (because of federal regulations dating back to World War II, I'm told) and if they want to show support for their sister union members by chugging through the overlapping stations at a turtle's pace, I'm not going to begrudge them -- at least I'm riding, and if it tacks an extra 30 minutes onto my ride, so be it.

But that sort solidarity takes on a much more sinister look when Septa personnel stands apart ("Hands in pockets!" Barb tells me a second time, for emphasis) as panicked passengers struggle to get out of the rail car adjacent to one that is burning.

How can you see people in this sort of situation and not lend a hand?

I don't know. You'll have to ask Septa.

Image of fire alarm from wikimedia commons.

1 comment:

  1. This is America in 2009 - land of the 'it's your problem' citizenry.

    Are you (really) surprised?


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