Column: Undercurrents:How BART and its Passengers Respond in an Emergency By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR
On Tuesday afternoon coming back to the East Bay from San Francisco, the BART train stopped on the tracks just before the West Oakland station, and the driver got on the intercom to let us know that we were being delayed because of an earthquake.
Not a good feeling, friends, especially since I’d been there before.
The last time that happened, I had ducked out early from work because the Giants and the A’s were playing in the World Series at Candlestick, my bosses had tickets, and why should I stick around at the office when everyone else was gone? I caught what turned to be the last East Bay train out of the Embarcadero station in San Francisco. When we came out of the tunnel from under the bay—without feeling any more than what everybody thought was the usual bumps and minor jostling—the train stopped just about where it did on Tuesday. Back in ’89, though, we stayed there a while longer—10 minutes, maybe, if I remember—until we finally pulled into the station. The train doors opened and we just sat there, dead in the water, until the operator finally came on the intercom and said something like, “Folks, I know that most of you are used to delays on the system, but this is different. I can’t get anyone on the radio or the telephone.” The operator then told us that he could not move the train until he could contact someone at BART central headquarters to see what was up, and invited us to hang out on the station platform until then.
After we had been on the platform for a few minutes, wandering around in the unseasonably warm weather and looking at an unusual industrial smoke cloud rising up over West Oakland (it later turned out to be the fire from a truck that had been smashed on the Cypress Expressway, but none of us knew that at the time), someone began saying that they’d just heard on a portable radio that there had been a major earthquake in the Bay Area, one of the freeways had collapsed, and a portion of the Bay Bridge had fallen into the bay. Since you could see the Bay Bridge from the West Oakland BART platform, and it didn’t look like it had fallen anywhere, I remember thinking, “Right, and Godzilla came out of the ocean and ate the Ferry Building.” Nobody else seemed to pay the news much attention at first, although the longer we stayed up there with the train standing open and unmoving, the more uneasy people became.
We might have been on the platform 20 minutes or so when a BART employee came rushing up the steps saying something like, “There’s been a major earthquake! Everybody needs to evacuate this platform immediately. Please walk down the stairs to the sidewalk. Now!”
There wasn’t any panic, but people got to the stairs pretty quick, as you can imagine. Like the captain in Jaws, that’s when I got the most frightened, as I stood in the suddenly-long line jamming the stairwell, thinking that I could have easily walked down those stairs anytime I wanted to in the past half hour, but now that I was up there waiting, an aftershock was going to come and topple the platform, and that’s how I was going to die.
Down on the sidewalk, which was crowded with BART passengers milling around, all order seemed to have vanished. It would have been helpful for BART to assemble all of the passengers together to make some sort of announcement, but if it happened, I must have been one of the many who missed it. Instead, most of us were left out there on our own, with no more information than that a major earthquake had hit the Bay Area.
Once on the ground, most of my anxiety had vanished, but I noticed that wasn’t the case for some of my white and Asian brothers and sisters. From what I imagine, most of them had never seen West Oakland from anywhere but 880 or the BART tracks rolling by, and weren’t especially interested in a more intimate experience. A couple of busses came by on Seventh Street, but those got filled with so many people so quickly, some hanging out the doors, it wasn’t worth the effort to try to get on. You could begin to feel the sense of panic rising. A group of passengers began to move en masse up Seventh Street towards downtown. When they got to the old 880 onramp just east of the BART station (the onramp has since demolished), some of them blocked off the freeway entrance and began to beg rides south. If BART ever made another announcement or helped get the passengers to their destinations, I had already walked downtown, and missed it.
Tuesday’s brief delay wasn’t as bad as Loma Prieta, of course—neither was the earthquake—but it seems that BART has learned little in the intervening 16 years about how to get information out to people in an emergency situation.
I happened to be sitting in the first car on Tuesday, not far from the driver’s compartment, and I could hear the radio messages being relayed to the driver from BART central. The dispatcher told the driver immediately that there had been an earthquake in the East Bay and that all of the BART trains had been put on hold while they did a systemwide track check to make sure there had been no problems. Though it wasn’t very pleasant sitting at a standstill several feet above the ground, I got the impression from the dispatch reports that this was not an emergency, there were no reported problems on the BART system, and the train hold and track check were routine, safety measures.
But that’s not the impression other passengers must have gotten from the announcement made over the intercom by the driver.
The first announcement—made after the driver had learned that there had been an earthquake and all BART trains had been halted for a check—was merely something like “we’ll be sitting here for a minute, folks,” maybe an apology for the delay, and nothing else. Some minutes later, after more information came from the dispatcher, the driver got back on the intercom and said something like, “There’s been an earthquake, and we’ll be delayed for a few minutes.” No announcement that there had been no reports of damage, and that the train delay appeared to be nothing more than routine.
I don’t want to fault the driver in this. The most important job for drivers is to get instructions from BART central, and to operate the train in a safe manner in order to make sure the passengers aren’t put in jeopardy. The driver did that on Tuesday; nothing he did or said appeared to be dangerous to the operation of the train.
But BART trains—like other public transportation—are not just gears and grease and wheels, they are also the people who ride them. And—like the paleontologists getting out of the car in the middle of the ride in Jurassic Park—people’s unpredictable actions in what they perceive is a crisis can sometimes create a crisis where none previously existed, or make an existing crisis worse.
That seems to have been the case a couple of weeks ago when a small tunnel fire halted a BART train a few feet from a station in San Francisco. While the driver was walking through the train so that she (or he) could return the train to the previous station, smoke began coming into the cars. The passengers apparently had not been informed what was being done by BART to rectify the problem, and so they panicked, forcing open some of the doors, evacuating the train and getting themselves into the darkened, smoky tunnel on foot, and turning a minor problem into an hours long semi-disaster.
But given the situation, and the little information they had at the time, you can hardly blame those jittery passengers.
Operating the BART trains safely to get the passengers out of possible danger is the system’s most important job, but not its only job. Letting the public know the nature of a possible emergency, and what is being done to rectify it, ought to be second on the list. Something for BART to work on.