I was on the Orange Line car that caught fire. I took one of the videos you’ve probably seen on the news. And I’m not going to shut up about it.
As a 30-year MBTA rider, the one thing I’ve recently come to rely on is that nothing about the T can be relied on. On any given day, there could be incidents that will land you in commuter purgatory — police action, medical emergencies, disabled trains, switch problems, exploding train batteries, solar flares. And electrical fires.
Thursday’s train fire wasn’t my first time at the burning train rodeo. It was just the worst time. The day started off like any other, until a loud bang brought the train to a screeching halt as it approached Assembly Station in Somerville. As with most commotion on the T, you glance up from the TikTok cooking hack you were absorbed in, rubberneck to determine what kind of foolishness the day brings, roll your eyes, and hit the day’s Wordle while the train sits in stasis, adding 10 to 20 minutes to your commute. Sometimes, the conductor kicks you off the train and T personnel herd you onto a shuttle, and you make the requisite phone call to your boss to explain why you won’t make the morning sales meeting. Naturally, your boss believes you because this is so commonplace.
As I was about to settle back into vacantly scrolling Facebook while I waited for the apologies over the loudspeaker, there came a series of bangs and flashes — as if someone had lit fireworks under the train. And then the whole front of the car lit up with an intense orange glow as the smoke and flames outside appeared to instantly engulf it. Panic shot through the car, and there was a rush to get as far away from the flames as possible.
People rushed the back of the car, and there were a few frenzied attempts to open the emergency door, which involves a series of steps — pull a ring, then a lever, recite an incantation. When those attempts failed, a young man in a navy polo shirt, like some kind of action movie hero, grabbed the overhead handrails and swung his entire body, feet first, into the nearest window panel, liberating it from its frame. That’s when people started hurling themselves out, utterly heedless of whatever dangers might lurk on the other side of the window. Many of us believed an explosion was imminent, and being burned alive while trapped in a 40-year-old bucket of bolts was simply not an option we cared to explore.
What I filmed came later, once the conductor was able to open the door and we were allowed to move down the train away from the actively burning car. But by that point, amid the chaos and confusion, dozens of people had already made the long drop to the bridge, potentially risking electrocution. Had the power to the third rail actually been cut by then? The MBTA later said it was cut shortly after the train stopped. I’ll always wonder. One woman jumped from the bridge into the Mystic River and then swam to shore. I don’t blame her, none of us knew what would happen next.
When I got home later that morning, I waited for the MBTA to call. No one did. Every reporter in the New England area managed to find my number, though. I wasn’t looking for a personal apology, although that would have been a nice gesture; I wanted some kind of assurance that they were taking this seriously, that they wanted to hear as many accounts of the day’s events as possible to help inform their future safety decisions. I wanted to be at least partially convinced that they weren’t just going to make excuses and blame the aging infrastructure and shrug it off with the attitude that, well, sometimes these things just happen. I’m still waiting for that call.
Today, Governor Charlie Baker probably drove to work in his state-issued, air-conditioned vehicle. MBTA general manager Steve Poftak probably took the T. In May, during a federal safety review of the T, he said he believes it’s safe. I am decidedly less confident. Funny thing about safety, it involves more than just mechanical integrity and training people on procedure and carefully measured words spoken on television. In a customer service-based industry, safety is a perception, a belief — a feeling based on trust, informed by experience.
And here’s the thing: I don’t trust Baker or Poftak. I have no confidence in them. I don’t feel safe. The things I’m being told are not consistent with my daily experiences. I don’t believe that we, the people who depend on the MBTA, are being heard or valued. My faith in MBTA leadership is going to be restored only when I start seeing concrete evidence that things are moving in the right direction. And believe me, I will notice.
The state needs to pay for more frequent and thorough car inspections so that people don’t get caught in doors and dragged to their deaths. It needs to put money into fixing busted stairs so people don’t fall through them and die. It needs to fix the ceiling of the heavily-trafficked pedestrian tunnel that connects the Red and Orange Lines at Downtown Crossing before it caves in.
The state needs to care harder. MBTA management must swallow their pride, admit they need help, and start actually listening to their stakeholders.
Until I’m convinced that this is the case, I will be in the habit of carrying Ativan and a fire extinguisher on my commutes.
Jennifer Thomson-Sullivan lives in Malden.