A severed cable suddenly halted a northbound light-rail train between the University of Washington and U District stations Friday night, stranding cars packed with passengers coming from the Apple Cup game who were stuck in a tunnel, Sound Transit said Saturday.
The train came to a halt in the tunnel around 8:25 p.m. after an electric cable connecting the first car with three trailing cars severed, according to the transit agency. After more than half an hour, some frustrated and confused passengers made the risky decision to use the emergency exits to leave the train and walk through the tunnel.
Sound Transit suspended service north of the University of Washington station, hampering rides home for Friday’s Apple Cup crowd leaving Husky Stadium.
Piper Wilton, a UW junior who attended Friday’s game, said it had probably been only a minute after the train’s departure from the University of Washington station when her car toward the back of the train came to a screeching halt and people were thrown several feet forward.
At first, passengers tried to keep their spirits high by chanting and singing “Sweet Caroline,” Wilton said. But soon, with some in the crowd intoxicated after a rowdy game, the atmosphere became tense, she said.
The windows quickly fogged up with breath and body heat, Wilton said. At least one person near her wondered if he was having a panic attack.
After 10 minutes of waiting, a voice over the intercom advised passengers to be patient but gave no further information, Wilton said. An announcement later advised that another train would be brought in.
After about 30 to 40 minutes, passengers in Wilton’s car spotted people walking alongside the train, though it was unclear whether they were passengers or Sound Transit employees. A door in the back of her car opened. It was not clear who had opened it.
When another door opened, people began walking out into the tunnel, Wilton said.
“We didn’t have much guidance on what we were doing,” she said. “We were just following this giant group of people.”
Wilton estimated that as many as 200 people got off the train and walked through the tunnel. The UW student and her friends walked all the way back to the University of Washington station.
When they surfaced at their station of origin, Wilton said the students were surprised to find transit employees and police officers present, but not checking on the passengers walking out of the tunnel.
“I do wish they had told us what was going on, or at least when we got off that there were a few people making sure we were OK, helping people who weren’t able to walk as far as others,” Wilton said.
Sound Transit said the severed cable blocked communication over the intercom to internal speakers in all but one of the cars, though Wilton likely heard the announcements coming from the lead car.
“With the severed cable preventing the operator from communicating by intercom with passengers in the trailing three cars, an unsafe incident developed when passengers decided to use emergency exits to leave the train,” the agency said in a statement released on its Twitter account Saturday morning.
Sound Transit didn’t cut power to the overhead catenary system that provides electricity to the train; passengers walking through the tunnel were not in danger from that, spokesperson John Gallagher clarified by email.
The best thing for passengers to do on a stuck train is to stay in their cars and wait for a rescue train, Gallagher said. If passengers leave without supervision, they might not know if another train could be coming down the line. The tunnels also weren’t designed for pedestrian passage, he added.
Videos posted to social media from passengers on the stuck cars captured the real-time confusion of the moment as passengers wandered in and around the stopped train.
Sound Transit employees eventually reached the blocked train after passengers had left the cars, Gallagher said. Transit employees and King County Sheriff’s Office deputies moved the remaining passengers inside the stuck cars to a rescue train that then moved at a slow speed through the tunnel.
The agency is launching an investigation into what happened, Sound Transit said.
“The investigation will include review of measures to ensure passengers stay onboard the train during such incidents for their safety and how to better communicate with riders during service disruptions,” the statement read. “We apologize for the considerable inconvenience to our passengers.”