fb-pixel Skip to main content

A pile of people. Blood everywhere. Screams.

Witnesses of the escalator malfunction Sunday evening at the Back Bay MBTA station described a terrifying scene when an ascending escalator suddenly reversed at a high speed shortly after 6 p.m., sending people tumbling backward.

“I didn’t think there would be injuries that seemed kind of serious until I was walking by, getting out,” said Matt Wasserman. “Then I saw blood everywhere; a couple people had taken their shirts off because there was blood everywhere.”

Wasserman, 18, who had just taken a commuter rail train back from the New England Patriots game at Gillette Stadium, said he was standing near the bottom of the escalator with a friend when it started to reverse.

Advertisement



“It was kind of like out of a movie scene,” said Wasserman. “All of the sudden it goes from going up to going down, and you start seeing people trying to kind of climb up the downward-going escalator.”

People were screaming, Wasserman said.

“It was like there was a shooting, the way the crowd reacted — the way the crowd sounded and reacted,” he said. “And then there was this massive pileup at the bottom.”

Claire Maia, 31, and her husband live in New Orleans and were in town to attend the Patriots game. They had just stepped off the escalator when it suddenly started going in reverse at “high max speed,” she said.

The escalator was full when it malfunctioned, she said, and people were piling up at the bottom, “kind of like dominos falling into a pile,” she said.

“People were screaming,” Maia said. “I was screaming, ‘Call 911!’ It was terrifying.”

Maia, who is five months pregnant, said she looked for an emergency stop button and pressed it immediately. She said she saw at least 25 people piled up at the bottom of the escalator, some of whom appeared to be seriously injured.

Advertisement



“There was a lot of blood,” Maia said. “It was pretty horrific.”

Boston Emergency Medical Services sent “multiple units” to the scene, according to Chief of Staff Laura Segal, transporting nine people to the hospital Sunday with “injuries reported to be minor in nature,” she said in an e-mail. On Monday, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the company it contracts to perform escalator inspections and maintenance, Kone, continued to investigate the reason for the breakdown.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the escalator involved in Sunday’s incident has not been involved in any previous, similar incidents. However, there have been similar incidents at the same station. In 2011, a Back Bay escalator suddenly reversed, sending people tumbling to the bottom, but no one was sent to the hospital. In 1996, an escalator there began rolling backward when a defective part broke and the emergency brake failed to stop the escalator, sending 15 people to the hospital.

The escalator in Sunday’s incident will remain out of service until investigators determine the cause of the malfunction and the escalator receives any needed repairs and approval from oversight regulators, he said. Back Bay station serves the Orange Line, Amtrak, and the MBTA commuter rail.

Through Pesaturo, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak declined to be interviewed Monday, citing the ongoing investigation. A spokesman for Kone said in a statement that safety and well-being of the public is its top priority.

Advertisement



“We are working closely with the MBTA and other appropriate authorities to gather the facts and determine what may have caused the incident that occurred at the Back Bay station Sunday, and our thoughts go out to those who sustained injuries,” the spokesman said.

Kone, an international company with 60,000 employees, “is continuing to perform inspections and maintenance work on escalators across the system,” Pesaturo said. “Under a contract with the MBTA, Kone regularly inspects and maintains the T’s 177 escalators system-wide.”

The escalator accident comes less than a month after Boston University professor David Jones fell to his death through a rusted, closed-off staircase at a Dorchester MBTA stop, raising concerns about the state of infrastructure throughout the transit system.

Renee Algarin, spokeswoman for Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, said the office is reviewing the escalator incident.

“District Attorney Rollins is keenly aware that the death of Professor David K. Jones near JFK/UMass station, the Green Line crash that injured dozens of people and now this malfunction at the Back Bay station injuring nine people have done nothing to instill confidence in the oversight and maintenance of our transit system,” Algarin said in a statement.

Andy Kohl, an escalator and elevator consultant and inspector based in Chicago, said a mechanical failure with the escalator’s chain or brake could cause the moving stairway to reverse at high speed, especially if it had a lot of people on it.

“There’s mechanical parts all over this equipment, and when you have a machine driven with a chain . . . if one of those components breaks, then you don’t have anything driving it in the up direction,” he said. “Then it’s going to give if there’s weight on it, it’s going to go in the opposite direction.”

Advertisement



Kohl said escalators should be maintained at least once per month.

“Escalators are very dangerous, they have to be heavily maintained,” he said. “Accidents and equipment failure can even happen if it is properly maintained.”

The danger came quickly into focus Sunday for Sarah Aucoin, 33, who was riding behind Maia on the escalator when it suddenly shuddered and the “bottom dropped out of it.”

“It just started to free fall,” Aucoin said. “It was like the Tower of Terror ride at Disney World.”

Aucoin said the bottom of the escalator was acting like a “paper shredder, but for people.”

“I shredded my legs on the escalator,” said Aucoin. “A little girl was missing half of her face, laying in a pool of blood, not moving. Her mother was scalped.”

Aucoin said the free fall lasted for about 3 to 5 seconds, and only stopped once her friend pushed the emergency button.

“It was scary,” said Aucoin, her voice breaking as she began to cry. “Had she not hit the button, we would be talking about deaths, not injuries.”

The Globe asked the state Division of Occupational Licensure, which includes the agency responsible for escalator inspections, for records on the Back Bay escalators. The agency required a public record request that is pending as of Monday.

Advertisement



The division requires annual inspections of registered devices like escalators, and leaves maintenance up to the device’s owner. The escalator involved in Sunday’s malfunction had its last annual inspection in July 2021, according to the MBTA.

How often an MBTA escalator receives preventative maintenance depends on passenger volume and length, according to the agency.

The escalator had its most recent operational checks on Sept. 7, 2021, and Aug. 5, 2021, according to the MBTA.

Segal, the chief of staff for the Boston EMS, said federal medical privacy rules prevent the agency from providing updates on the people injured.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven. Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.