Metro blocked, locked emergency exits, inspection reports show

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Metro's emergency exits have been plagued with problems that could make it impossible for riders to flee if necessary, such as locked doors, equipment blocking the exits, collapsed stairs and escape shafts left dark with burned-out lights.

An emergency exit sign at Capitol South even pointed riders in the wrong direction, records show.

Other problems
Inspection reports of Metro's emergency exit shafts from 2009 and 2010 showed:
Doors too heavy to open: The most common problems besides replacing lights were doors that needed more than 35 pounds of force to open, more than Metro's standard. Fifteen of the 52 stations had "overweight" hatch doors to the street level, according to the reports, typically over multiple inspections. Generally emergency doors should need 15 pounds of pressure to open but no more than 30 pounds. "That's black and white," said D.C. Fire Battalion Chief J. Michael Bashore, who until recently worked in the fire marshal's division. "You don't want the door to be too heavy to not get out."
• Months to fix small problems: Seven reports over 18 months show that an exit light inside one of Anacostia's exits needed to be remounted on the wall.
• Repairs that don't help: An inspector noted that requested work to weld a rain gutter prevented the doors from closing by the time inspectors returned. And after three inspections showing a door was missing that should have blocked access to a ventilation fan at Navy Yard, a new door was installed. But an inspector wrote that the new door was sprung open, bent and misaligned. It was still that way three months later. "Unfortunately, if a door is not closed properly, the air pressure from passing trains can slam the door open and shut, causing serious damage," Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
• No exit? Inspectors were not able to access one Pentagon emergency exit in seven of eight inspections to see if it met Metro's standards. At Southern Avenue, four inches of mud filled the stairway of one exit over two inspections. And at Congress Heights, an inspector said 6-foot-tall vegetation covered one set of doors -- as did a beehive. "Bees are angry," the inspector wrote.

Although an outside safety group told Metro to fix the problems twice, in 2007 and 2010, the agency has yet to begin some of the changes it promised a year ago.

With information obtained in a public records request, The Washington Examiner reviewed 968 quarterly inspection reports and 17 structural maintenance inspections for all 121 emergency exit shafts in the rail system from 2009 through 2010.

The inspection reports show repeated problems as simple as burned-out lights that didn't get fixed, even after multiple checks.

At Congress Heights, an emergency exit was found locked from the station side -- the side that riders would flee from -- during six inspections over at least 15 months.

Shrubs blocked one exit near the Grosvenor-Strathmore station for the entire period, with inspectors noting the hazard in all eight inspections.

Equipment repeatedly blocked the exits, such as diesel cans, 55-gallon drums, escalator parts, a coil of fiber cable and even a shopping cart. Sometimes, the materials were cleaned up after one inspection. At Southern Avenue, though, a floor cleaner and trash cans blocked one exit for more than six months, over three inspections.

In one case, the documents show Metro workers closed out a work order to fix a door at Forest Glen without doing the work.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee, charged with monitoring Metrorail's safety, noted that similar problems were not fixed in "a timely manner" in its 2007 and 2010 triennial audits of the agency. Metro developed a system a year ago to follow up on safety problems found during the inspections.

But Metro told The Examiner that it won't be able to put it into place for a few more months, nearly two years after the safety group's last finding.

"It's surprising and concerning," said TOC Chairman Matt Bassett when told that Metro had not begun the automated notifications it said it would. "Last June, Metro showed TOC evidence of a new process for inspecting and maintaining emergency exits. The evidence seemed pretty clear that that process was already in place, so we closed the audit finding. Based on what you're telling us, we're going to revisit the issue."

In April, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles created a fire marshal position in the safety department to look into the problems and make sure they are addressed quickly, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. And in March, the agency began a quarterly housekeeping initiative to keep Metrorail free of excess debris, he said.

However, it appears problems found as long ago as 2010 have not been completely fixed. It is difficult to independently verify if Metro is still having problems inside its emergency exits, as the exits are not publicly accessible except in emergencies.

Metro took more than a year to respond to The Examiner's request for the initial public records. But The Examiner recently found a sinkhole outside a Medical Center exit more than a year and a half after inspectors found one there.

The initial sinkhole, measuring 9 feet by 5 feet by 8 feet, was found in September 2010. Two weeks ago, two concrete patches were visible but a sinkhole about 2 feet by 2 feet remained, indicating the underlying problem had not been addressed. Stessel said the area "requires ongoing management" because of the nearby soil structure.

Mortimer Downey, who leads the Metro board's safety committee, said board members had not been told of problems in the emergency exits. "This is stuff that can't go unnoticed," Downey said. "I would hope and expect to see action."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner