Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. earthquake shakes the Rosslyn Metro station

August 23, 2011 - 06:25 PM
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As far as the eye could see, people voiced their frustrations about the people who wouldn't offload as commanded. 7 Photos
As far as the eye could see, people voiced their frustrations about the people who wouldn't offload as commanded. "Get off the train!" one woman shouted. "You are keeping all of us from getting home." Eventually the train did leave, although some of the commuters appeared to still be riding it. People quickly crowded onto the next Orange Line train that shortly arrived. (Photo: John Hendel/John Hendel | Date: Aug. 23, 2011)

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rumbled through the East Coast this afternoon caused countless transit delays throughout Washington, D.C. Metro had announced that trains would slow to 15 miles/hour for hours into the evening as they conducted track inspections. I expected delays would, as Metro warned, be inevitable, and I was curious. What I found were scores of bodies, frustration, shouting, tears, and what nearly was a fight in the WMATA underground, at least in one northern Virginia station.

Our offices are here in the Rosslyn area, so around 4 p.m., I stepped away from the ongoing coverage of the earthquake, which chronicles the first reactions to the disaster, to visit the nearby Rosslyn Metro station. From the moment I exited the office, I heard people murmuring to one another about their Metro fears.

As I approached the station, I noticed a couple things — a line of taxis that normally wait on Moore Street was gone, likely nabbed by desperate commuters, as a crowd of people waiting for the bus outside the station seemed about two or three times its normal size. But inside the station, the size of the crowds initially struck me as nothing different than a standard afternoon on Metro. I descended onto the first platform, where trains rode into the District. Nothing unusual.

But then I looked over the railing, where gawkers gathered and pointed, and saw what was essentially a transit nightmare — scores of bodies lined the lower Rosslyn platform as far as the eye could see. They waited next to a blinking Orange Line train that seemed just as packed with people. This was a recipe for commuter hell.

People next to me on the platform whispered in amazement at the sight. They snapped photos. As I descended into the waiting mob, a mom guided her children toward the exit, reassuring them by saying, "This is an adventure!"

Below, the chaos got worse.

The Orange Line train that sat there in front of the masses was being offloaded. Metro announcers kept speaking of "the problem train" and asking the WMATA customers to please get off the train.

Many resisted. Soon the waiting travelers on the platform began yelling at the stragglers. "Get off the train!" one woman yelled. "You are keeping all of us from getting home." A man walked past me, laughing in disbelief. "These fuckers are just sitting there," he said.

Another Metro announcement reiterated the WMATA wisdom about the delays and urging customers to properly offload the train. The announcer added that the Rosslyn station manager should call Central Control. As I watched the dozens of increasingly angry people pushed up against one another, I saw the wisdom in that last request. I later asked Metro what the problem was. Why offload this Orange Line train? Metro public information officer Steven Taubenkibel told me the train was "removed from service" due to a problem with closing the doors.

Shortly before 4:20 p.m., the offloading train left, even as multiple people remained in their seats.

The next Orange Line train toward Vienna arrived moments later, and people swarmed around the doors as they opened. People shoved and tried to edge forward as a few others exited the new train, which also appeared packed through the windows. "Whoa!" I heard one commuter shout. "Time out," another barked. I watched all this, once again, from above on the upper platform. The new train's doors began closing but caught on the backpack of an Asian man in a white shirt. Another man in a cap, standing on the platform, yanked the bag and pulled the man off the train. The two looked near to a confrontation, pushing at one another as the train's doors successfully shut.

"I want the train to go!" shouted the capped man in explanation.

"I want the train to go, too," the other replied unhappily.

I turned to leave the scene, hearing murmurs from all directions about how outrageous the commuting situation was. An old black woman walking into the station said, "This is chaos." A young woman said, "I just want to go home."

The real kicker — the two ascending escalators were broken right as this crowd from below reached the exit. And remember, these Rosslyn escalators are long. Again there was the sight of bodies as far as the eye could see, reaching up into the light above. People huffed and sweated and climbed. An overweight man seemed overcome with tears in his misery two-thirds of the way up, only to receive water from a good samaritan passing by. Around that time, I noticed that one of the two descending escalators had been transferred into an ascending escalator. 

"I had good timing!" a woman called from the newly ascendant escalator. "They just turned it on."

According to WMATA's fifth press release on the earthquake released an hour after  the Rosslyn debacle, "crowds have dissipated at most Metrorail stations in Downtown DC. Metro Transit Police continue to monitor crowd conditions. All stations are open." Delays, however, are expected to continue.

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