‘Frightening Event': Here's Everything We Know About the Orange Line Train Fire

The frightening ordeal was caused by a metal piece of siding called a sill coming loose and into contact with the electrified third rail, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said

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A fire that broke out on an MBTA Orange Line train car Thursday in Somerville, Massachusetts, has sparked considerable reaction from leaders and riders alike, adding to a list of recent incidents involving the troubled agency.

"Many of you have seen the visual images that have come from this," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said during a press conference Thursday afternoon at Wellington Station in Medford. "Obviously a very frightening event and not the service that the MBTA wants to provide, and it is these types of incidents that we are working to prevent and avoid every day. This incident happened and I think it's important that we step forward and acknowledge it, and again I want to express my apology to our customers who experienced that today."



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Derailments and safety violations at the MBTA have repeatedly made headlines and this year drew the attention of the Federal Transit Administration, which in June ordered safety upgrades after finding "continuous safety violations and a failure to take urgent, corrective actions."

Here's everything we know about what happened Thursday:

A fire caused an MBTA train to be evacuated on a bridge over Mystic River.

A chaotic escape

A Boston-bound Orange Line train caught fire just before 7 a.m. Thursday while on the bridge over the Mystic River as it was approaching Assembly Station in Somerville from Medford. There were 200 people on board when the train started filling with smoke on a 90-degree day.

Passengers on board have described the moments the fire broke out, recounting smoke filling the head train car and people breaking windows to escape the situation.

Video clips posted to social media show people climbing out of the train and walking along the tracks on the bridge to get away. Some videos show smoke coming from the tracks themselves, too.

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.

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

A man staying at the nearby Encore Hotel shared what he saw with NBC10 Boston from his vantage point.

"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."

What happened?

The fire on the Orange Line train was triggered by a metal sill that came loose from the lower part of the train and contacted the third rail, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Thursday afternoon.

During the press conference, Poftak described the sill as one foot by six foot and compared the object, which is supposed to be riveted to the train, to siding that "doesn't have any structural role, but it covers up a portion of the vehicle almost ... akin to like aluminum siding at your house."

As the fire was occurring, the southbound train was halted on a bridge above the Mystic River, and a call went in to to cut power to the train, which Poftak said occurred in under two minutes.

While many riders were evacuated and stepped off the train onto the tracks, Poftak said "there were a number of people who self-evacuated through several windows on the train." He said four windows were removed.

The ordeal was caused by a metal piece of siding called a sill coming loose and into contact with the electrified third rail.

"Some folks made the decision to self-evacuate, which I understand, but we also did have an evacuation through the rear of the train," he said.

No injuries were reported.

Inspectors were dispatched Thursday morning to examine sills on other Orange Line cars, and Poftak said, "I've not received any word that there was any other issue found."

Poftak said service resumed by 11 a.m., following right of way inspections, and he remains confident in the T safety.

"I took the Orange Line here," he said. "I'll take it back. I regularly take public transportation."

A disabled Orange Line train was emitting smoke on the bridge over the Mystic River Thursday morning, leaving passengers to walk across the tracks on foot, video footage shows.

Heat, speed will be part of investigation

The train itself, which was left charred, was brought to the yard at Wellington for a closer look at what happened. The train went into service originally in 1980 and was last inspected June 23, according to Poftak. The MBTA conducted inspections on all other vehicles in the Orange Line following Thursday's fire.

The transit agency says its looking into whether it needs to work on training for events like this.

The train that caught fire was put in service in January 1980, and was last inspected on June 23, when he said the sill was also inspected.

Massachusetts is in the midst of a heatwave and Poftak said the high temperatures are affecting operations, mentioning a drawbridge that became stuck in the upright position.

"The sill itself is riveted to the vehicle," he said. "And I don't want to engage in guesswork around if the heat had any impact, but it will be something that we look at."

Poftak said the train's speed will be part of the T's investigation, and said he didn't know the recommended speed on that stretch of the Orange Line or how fast the train was traveling prior to the fire.

New Orange Line vehicles will replace all older vehicles "over time," he said, not offering a timeline. "As soon as we have an adequate supply of new vehicles ready to go, we'll be replacing all of the trains on both the Orange Line and the Red Line," he said.

The T's contract with Chinese manufacturer CRRC called for a complete fleet of new Orange Line cars to be delivered by January 2022 and a complete fleet of new Red Line cars delivered by September 2023, but a delay officials announced during the pandemic pushed those target dates back to April 2023 for the Orange Line and September 2024 for the Red Line.

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.

The reaction

Poftak apologized to riders for what happened and called it "a very frightening event and not the service that the MBTA wants to provide." He acknowledged that evacuations are scary in general, but this scenario put passengers in "acutely vulnerable space," since they were on a bridge between stations.

The incident drew criticism from leaders in the state.

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."

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."

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.

This is the latest safety incident for the beleaguered MBTA, which is under federal review. The Federal Transit Administration said its "extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues" at the MBTA and launched the investigation in April.

NBC10 Boston/State House News Service
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