The 121 emergency exit shafts that riders would use to escape the underground Metro tunnels are a hidden but crucial aspect of the transit system should disasters occur.
"They're only important when you need them, but they're very important when you need them," said Mortimer Downey, member of the Metro board and chairman of the safety committee.
The last time riders were evacuated using one of Metro's emergency exit shafts was in December 2008 for a report of a fire under a train, according to Metro. About 100 riders were evacuated, and the Friendship Heights station was closed for 30 minutes.
The exits don't look like much from the street, typically nothing more than raised concrete platforms covered with metal plates.
The plates are actually two doors, hydraulically powered so that riders can push up and the doors swing open.
The doors connect to stairwells leading to the tunnels between the stations, especially in places where underground stations are far apart.
Only 52 of Metro's 86 rail stations have emergency exit shafts affiliated with them. Other stations already have two normal station exits or are close enough to other stations that could be used for escape, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. Other parts of the system run aboveground.
When Metro closed one of the two exits at Dupont Circle to replace three escalators this winter, officials emphasized that they were prepared to evacuate riders in emergencies. They added a spiral staircase inside a ventilation shaft to give the station a third emergency exit, bringing the total number of emergency exit shafts systemwide to 122.
But from 2009 through 2010, inspection reports consistently found problems with the Dupont station emergency exits, including no lighting in the emergency exit shafts or along the track level to show riders how to get out. - Kytja Weir