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The commuting masses who shlep from Wheaton into downtown D.C. every morning endure a forgettable trek. The numbing half-hour Metro ride is unfailingly dull, punctuated only by fleeting above-ground moments. But the most grueling leg of the journey—the segment where time actually stands still—comes before the train ride, on the escalator.

The Wheaton Metro escalator is the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere. As you peer down from the edge of the abyss, the escalator’s rolling black crests look harmless enough. They churn drearily away, shepherding all the obedient people of Wheaton into the bowels of the station. As commuters step onto the moving staircase, their faces shift into automatic blankness. After all, the concrete and steel tunnel could not be more boring.

But do not be deceived. The Metro escalator is a fearsome beast that has resisted taming for the past 21 years. No other subway system in the country has so many escalators, just waiting to be fed. We have tossed money, children, and old people into the escalators’ jaws, and they have just sucked them down, sharklike, without a trace.

Just last March, Darryl Jackson was taking the Metro escalator down into the Navy Yard station around 10 o’clock at night, when his T-shirt and coat somehow got sucked into the evil “combplate,” as it’s called, where the moving stairs meet the floor. As his clothing tightened around his neck, Jackson called out for help. A station manager rushed to the scene and cut the power, but Jackson had already been strangled to death. Lining up behind a long queue of plaintiffs, Jackson’s family is now suing the transit agency.

Luckily, fatalities are not everyday occurrences on Metro. Each day, after all, some 275,000 riders shuttle merrily between sidewalk and station. But that doesn’t mean their experience is likely to be a smooth one. Even though Metro currently maintains a squadron of 80 mechanics to tend to the tantrums of the system’s 537 escalators, it’s a rare day when you don’t encounter a broken one. On any given afternoon, 40 of the escalators are shut down for repair, Metro reports.

Face it: It’s time to admit defeat. We simply cannot handle the responsibility of the Metro escalator. Again and again, the beast has outsmarted us, putting our brightest minds and most innocent riders to shame.

Flip the switch. Make the office drones break a sweat for a change. Or send them to the elevators. Put in a ski lift, hook up a rope tow—do whatever it takes. But the massacre must stop.

The summer of ’91 was a particularly grisly time for Metro. Over a two-month period, the escalators mauled seven people—five of them children. When a 2-year-old boy stuck his hand between the step and the side panel, the machine severed tendons and nerves throughout his hand. Another 2-year-old met a similar fate the same month. A 15-year-old Michigan girl—in town for the annual Future Homemakers of America convention—lost a toe at the Smithsonian station when her sneaker got sucked into the escalator.

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The list of tragedies goes on and on: men, women, and children of all ages, brought shrieking to their knees. Since Metro opened in ’76, the escalator system has been party to four fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Toddlers, prone to sitting on steps and sticking fingers and Keds into the infamous gap between step and side wall, are dropping like flies. In ’91, a 3-year-old girl got her leg caught in the gap but escaped with a 7-inch gouge in her calf that sliced down to the bone. In ’85, another 3-year-old girl died when the drawstring on the hood of her jacket got sucked into the escalator’s treads.

Granted, hundreds of thousands of Metro riders go their whole lives without experiencing a single noteworthy escalator incident. But tell that to the friends and family of the 187 victims of Metro-escalator injuries last year. Tell that to the 72-year-old woman who, in ’83, fell down a 94-foot-long Metro Center escalator after it stopped abruptly. When she hit the bottom, she had a broken neck, a fractured wrist, shoulder injuries, severe brain damage, and a heart attack.

And there are all sorts of peripheral casualties: a mechanic crushed while installing a 20-ton escalator, another man electrocuted after falling onto a fluorescent light beside the escalator. It’s too much to bear.

Yet nothing Metro officials do seems to stop the bloodshed. And aside from a spate of falsified inspection records, waste, mismanagement, and some crappy equipment, Metro has done plenty. Motivated in part by a healthy fear of lawsuits, the people at the transit agency are now spending $49 million to replace shoddy escalators with sturdier models. They have installed brighter lights and polyester brushes in the dangerous gap between stairs and wall to warn riders against straying too close.

In case disaster strikes, they have placed emergency stop buttons on the escalators. First, they put the buttons underneath the handrail to prevent frolicking children from playing with them. Then, when the children kept getting eaten alive, they moved them to the top of the handrail, in plain view. Of course, then they had to install signs warning riders not to play with the buttons.

Over the years, Metro officials have spent a lot of time trying to stop idiots from being themselves. In ’91, Metro held a press conference to launch its “Metro Wants You to Be Safe” campaign, featuring public service announcements on radio and TV, colorful posters, and more. Metro has posted signs telling people not to sit down on the escalators. “We, as users of machinery, must use it correctly and responsibly,” says Metro spokesperson Cheryl Johnson, without a trace of irony.

But as Johnson well knows, put people around big, dangerous machinery, and they will immediately begin playing chicken for the highest stakes of all. Metro has compiled pie charts breaking down causes of injuries and graphs detailing quarterly averages. Metro’s injury categories include “falling object,” “pushed/horseplay,” and the ever-treacherous “caught in combplate.” The overwhelming majority of escalator accidents, the charts confirm, are caused by human error.

“We consider escalator safety a two-way partnership,” Johnson says, sounding like a kindergarten teacher. “We have to do what we need to do to make sure our escalators are in safe operation, and we as riders of the escalator must not sit down on the escalator, we must pick our feet up, we must not allow children to play on the steps.”

For a while, Metro contemplated speeding up the escalators so the sloths among us—sensing an opportunity for leisure—wouldn’t be tempted to cop a squat on the steps. But the acceleration would invariably cause some of the same people to pratfall in new and dangerous ways. So, to protect the dumbest among us, Metro eventually decided to slow down the escalators from 120 feet per minute to 90 feet per minute.

This speed, as you must know, is a grueling crawl, just above the rate it would take you to walk the same distance on your hands. Suns set and seasons change while the escalator lopes along. And the average Metro rider takes almost four escalator rides per day at this rate.

At the Woodley Park stop, if you stand still on the mini-escalators as well as on the main event, you spend a total of three and a half minutes barely moving. The Wheaton haul takes almost the same amount of time. Metro recommends that you stand very, very still on these rides. And for God’s sake, don’t sit down.

But it’s all in vain. The glowing signs at Metro stations offering escalator safety tips (“Never ride on the handrail,” “Avoid cases of loose shoe laces”) won’t change our behavior. Just last fall, Johnson reports, a 32-year-old man hopped onto a stairway banister at a Metro station, cruised on down like a punchy preteen, and fell in a heap at the bottom, knocking himself unconscious. Says Johnson, “It does not take but a nanosecond for a terrible accident to occur.”CP