MBTA Leaders Provide Update After Confusion and Chaos from Orange Line Fire

SOMERVILLE, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — After frantic passengers fled a burning Orange Line train Thursday morning, MBTA leadership is working to explain this latest safety fiasco.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak provided an update outside Wellington Station Thursday afternoon, apologizing for the 'frightening' incident.

Poftak said there were roughly 200 people on the train going over a bridge in Somerville, when sparks and smoke filled the air. Passengers kicked out several windows, jumping onto the tracks. One woman leapt from the bridge into the Mystic River below.

The G.M. says it looks like faulty equipment is to blame. "A metal sill which runs along the base of the vehicle ... came loose and then made contact with the third rail, Poftak said.

The train has been in service since January 1981 and passed an inspection less than a month ago. Poftak says MBTA crews have inspected the sills of all Orange Line trains in service in the wake of the fire.

It's not clear why exactly the sill caught fire, but Poftak says the MBTA has "obviously" been having problems with the heat lately. The news conference at Wellington was held in full view of where a battery exploded on a brand new Orange Line train weeks ago, which the T says was caused by overheating.

This latest incident comes as the Federal Transit Authority continues its broad investigation into safety at the MBTA, and just days after the G.M. was grilled by state lawmakers over the T's leadership.

At the press conference, Poftak, said he'd be 'open' to an idea proposed by highly critical legislators which would dissolve the MBTA into MassDOT. Poftak says he's leaving the issue up to the legislative and judicial branches, but "anything that those parties can do to help us make the MBTA safer, I would be open-minded about."

The FTA is scheduled to finish its investigation next month.

Many questions remain around why the evacuation was ruled by panic, not protocol.

Some passengers on the train during Thursday morning's fire spoke to WBZ NewsRadio's Brooke McCarthy.

"When we were leaving Wellington, the rails started to spark up a little bit, and we started to feel a little heat. It really started to spark and we really started to see some smoke. People tried to get the attention of the train operator, but no one could," the passenger said. "So the people at the end of the train car, they actually broke the window open with their bags. We actually jumped out onto the rocks near the tracks below."

Passengers walked back along the side of the tracks on the bridge back to Wellington station. Some reports say passengers had to step over live rails as they were evacuated off the bridge, but the General Manager said it's not clear yet whether that's the case.

Another rider says, at first, she didn't question the burning smell.

"I'm like, it's the orange line, not much of a big deal," she said. "But all of a sudden, chaos erupted. There were people running towards the back of the train, yelling all different types of things, yelling fire. Next thing you know, people are kicking windows out, trying to pry the doors open. I think it was truthfully humans kicking into survival mode."

Thankfully, no one was hurt. The woman who jumped off the bridge has not been identified, but G.M. Poftak says she declined medical help.

WBZ NewsRadio’s Madison Rogers (@MadisonWBZ) has more:

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