D.C. Commuters Learn to Escape Subway Tunnel

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The transit system in Washington, D.C., is training volunteer subway riders how to escape train tunnels in the event of a terrorist attack. Attendants learn to avoid power lines and passing trains.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Subway riders usually see the dark tunnels that they travel through from the relative comfort of their seats. Washington, DC's, Metro system is taking an unusual step of bringing volunteers into the tunnels. It's to teach them what to do in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. NPR's Pam Fessler dawned an orange Day-Glo vest to join one group.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The first thing you notice as you stand in the otherwise humid tunnel is a slight shift in the air, a hint of cool breeze. There's also a faint rumble that seems to come and go at first, then suddenly roars right at you.

Mr. SCOTT DUNN (Transit Police): It's coming.

Unidentified Man #1: Lights out.

FESSLER: Eight volunteers and I stand on a concrete ledge with our backs plastered against the tunnel wall.

(Soundbite of a subway train passing by)

FESSLER: It's a bit of a thrill having the cars whiz by so closely. The train is surprisingly high. We have to look up to see the windows.

Mr. DUNN: Go quick. If you want to see into a train, you do this. You do this, just like the old ...(unintelligible) railroad.

FESSLER: These Metro riders are here to learn how the subway system works. That way, they can help themselves and fellow passengers in an emergency.

Mr. DUNN: OK. Spread out. Get like in a straight line. Space yourself accordingly, single file.

FESSLER: Flashlights in hand, we walk through the dimly lit tunnel, looking for any obstructions along the narrow pathway.

Mr. DUNN: OK. Be careful. To your right is a--looking to your right is the third rail.

FESSLER: Transit Police instructor Scott Dunn notes the thick rail running alongside the tracks. It carries 750 volts of electricity, enough to power the train and to easily kill someone. But Dunn says not to get too hung up about getting electrocuted. More people die because they're so busy avoiding the third rail that they don't notice an oncoming train.

Mr. DUNN: These people get in trouble out here because they're rushing around. They're stressed. They're scared. Nothing to be scared of. Like I said, you work with the third rail, you respect it, and you'll be fine.

FESSLER: In fact, he shows us how to stop over one, something people might have to do in an evacuation.

Mr. DUNN: Get your feed spread. Get comfortable.

FESSLER: He stands with his feet parallel, then lifts one leg over the rail, straddling it before lifting the second.

Mr. DUNN: Just bring it over like that. So that's pretty much how you want--want to try that?

FESSLER: Slowly, the volunteers step forward.

Mr. DUNN: Put that foot in front of you, yeah, one at a time.

FESSLER: US Patent Office worker Fritz Fleming is doing great until his foot hits a big bolt that secures the rail to the floor.

Mr. DUNN: Take your time. Take your time.

Mr. FRITZ FLEMING (US Patent Officer Worker): I slipped a little bit--I saw that...

Mr. DUNN: Yeah.

Mr. FLEMING: There's a bolt sticking up there.

FESSLER: Dunn says, theoretically, you won't get electrocuted just touching the third rail. You have to ground yourself by touching one of the tracks, as well. But he doesn't suggest testing it out.

(Soundbite of a subway train)

FESSLER: Transit authorities move an off-duty train onto a side track to show us something really dangerous, round metal disks that stick out from the bottom of the train car like steps. The disks pull power from the third rail to move the train. Touch these and you're definitely dead.

Mr. DUNN: Any questions about anything? Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #2: Do cell phones work down here?

FESSLER: Some do, but Dunn says the best way to reach help is to use emergency call boxes marked by dim blue lights and located every 800 feet. We're also shown signs pointing to emergency exits and the closet where the fire extinguishes are kept.

Mr. DUNN: Thank you, guys. I appreciate you all working with us. You've been a great group.

FESSLER: Everyone here feels a little better prepared. For what, they're not sure, but there was just a report that a map of the DC Metro was found on an al-Qaeda Web site. Bill Forbes, who rides the subway daily to his job at the Bureau of Land Management, thinks this has been a valuable tour.

Mr. BILL FORBES (Bureau of Land Management Employee): It makes you think about, you know, looking out for members of your family, friends and everything else and also developing a plan of what you're going to do in certain situations.

FESSLER: He and the others will learn more in coming weeks, how to get out a train car and the signs of a potential terrorist. Authorities hope the more people they can train, the more help they'll have in a crisis.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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