Orange Line Train Catches Fire on Bridge, Passengers Escape Thru Windows

One witness said people were “physically climbing out on the city side of the train” and going out onto the track after the Orange Line caught fire in Somerville

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A Boston-bound Orange Line train caught fire on the bridge over the Mystic River Thursday morning, putting passengers into such a panic that they smashed windows to get out.

Those on board described the scene of the train car filling with smoke on a 90 degree day. The head train car caught fire and broke down just before 7 a.m. as it was approaching Assembly Station in Somerville from Medford.

About 200 passengers were on board when a fire interrupted their commute on a bridge over Mystic River.

Video footage posted to social media showed passengers climbing off the train and walking across the tracks of the bridge on foot. Passengers posted photos and videos of the smoke coming from the tracks as well.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak apologized to passengers for what happened, calling it "a very frightening event and not the service that the MBTA wants to provide."

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak addressed a startling Orange Line train fire that had passengers evacuating down the tracks from the middle of a bridge over the Mystic River Thursday.

He said at a news conference that the incident was caused by a metal piece of siding called a sill coming loose and into contact with the electrified third rail. None of the roughly 200 people on board the 42-year-old train were injured throughout the evacuation. Passengers broke about four windows as they escaped.

It's the latest safety incident for the beleaguered MBTA, which is under federal review, and prompted a new round of criticism from lawmakers and public transit activists.

'Very scary' Orange Line train evacuation

Witness John Gosselin told NBC10 Boston that people were “physically climbing out on the city side of the train” and going out onto the track. He was staying at the Encore hotel, looking out his window, when the train caught fire.

"I saw the train come to a stop first, then it started to spark, then it started to flame," he said. "It fully engulfed the first probably six feet of car behind the driver, then smoke started to billow all the way back on the train. Then folks started to come out the windows. It was scary there for a minute. You could not see the train, the smoke was so dark. The passengers were clearly helping each other, moving very quickly to the rear of the train."

He said it appeared to be explosive: “It was a burst. It probably burned for a minute, and then after that, it was just a lot of smoke – very intense for a very short period of time."

Flames and smoke poured from an MBTA Orange Line train crossing the Mystic River in Somerville on Thursday, July 21, 2022. Passengers had to evacuate the train from windows and walk down the bridge to safety.

Gosselin added, “people were clearly panicked and moving quickly toward the rear. It was unclear if it was going go get any worse, but the fire burned itself out.”

One woman seen in the river below said she jumped off the bridge to avoid the smoke, but got out of the water on her own and refused help.

Smoke could be seen coming from the charred and disabled train car, which broke down just before 7 a.m. as it was approaching Assembly Station in Somerville.

MBTA service update

The Somerville Fire Department was one of the agencies that responded. Power was turned off between Wellington and Assembly, the MBTA said in a statement. Shuttle buses initially replaced service between Oak Grove and Community College. Service later resumed with delays.

The charred and disabled train was brought to the yard at Wellington for further inspection. Federal transportation authorities have been notified. The incident prompted harsh criticism from state and federal lawmakers.

The train that caught fire went into service in January 1980 and was last inspected June 23, Poftak said. After the incident Thursday, every other Orange Line vehicle in the fleet was inspected.

MBTA staff practice evacuations, according to Poftak, and workers came to help from Wellington Station. Any time passengers have to evacuate onto tracks is scary, he said but he acknowledged that Thursday's incident put riders in an "acutely vulnerable space," since they were on a bridge between stations.

He said later that one of the things the agency is looking into is whether it needs to work on training for such incidents.

Train fire prompts new criticism of MBTA

Gov. Charlie Baker addressed the Orange Line fire Thursday afternoon while appearing on Boston Public Radio: "It's unfair to say it's a total mess," Baker said. "It's not unfair to say what happened today is unacceptable."

He used the incident as an example of why he welcomed the Federal Transit Administration's safety review of the MBTA, and noted he spoke to people at the agency Thursday morning.

"One of the things I said to them is 'I want to know what the FTA says about this,'" Baker said.

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., criticized the MBTA on Twitter Thursday, writing, "How many people in Boston drove to work today in a car from 1979? We desperately need to invest in public transit so these types of things don't happen any more. Underinvestment = disasters like this."

Massachusetts lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Transportation issued a joint statement in response to the fire, characterizing it as " dramatic illustrations of the public safety threats posed by the current state of affairs at the MBTA." The Committee is pushing to have oversight hearings.

"As we await findings from the investigations to come, it is clear that despite assurances from the Baker administration that the MBTA’s safety management program is now on a proper footing, significant improvement is still needed," lawmakers wrote. "Our thoughts are with those who experienced this frightening situation and we hope everyone is safe. We are in the process of scheduling additional hearings and look forward to continuing our examination in the months to come."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu called the fire "evidence of an aging transit system in crisis" and said she'd be pushing for "rapid systemwide upgrades."

Asked about whether riders should worry about the MBTA's safety, Poftak told reporters, "I remain confident in the safety of the MBTA. I took the Orange Line here."

He said the MBTA "is significantly safer than most other forms of transportation" but added acknowledged systemic issues and said "I think there's a lot we can do to make it safer."

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