In late July 1997, I walked away from a subway fire on the Red Line.
I think about it every year at about this time. I also think about it whenever the subway stops in between stations, without any apparent reason, for an undetermined period of time.
Here’s what happened.
It had been a long, hot, miserable, overworked summer and there was no end in sight. I was breaking in a new job and an entirely new magazine staff and was working a lot of weekends. On the Sunday afternoon in question I was going downtown to the office, so right off the bat expectations for the day were at a low ebb. E. was out of town and I was resigned to working all day. In what was the dominant mood of the summer, I was trying very hard not to want anything or look forward to anything.
Somewhere between Clark & Division and North & Clyborn (almost downtown, but not quite) the train stopped. And there it stayed. For a while I didn’t notice, but I eventually turned off my headphones in the middle of “I Could Never Be Your Woman”) and tried to figure out what was going on. Typically, the CTA almost never tells you anything when there’s a service problem, but as I was sitting near a conductor (this was when they still had conductors in cars, instead of prerecorded messages) I thought I might overhear the radio.
All I could make out was one jagged transmission: “Can you tell me the exact location of—“and then there was a burst of static. Still nothing happened and nobody knew anything, nobody said anything.
Suddenly the door that led to the next car burst open and all the passengers from the rest of the train began to pour through and head for the door at the end of our car. With them came a wave of smoke.
I am high-strung and angst-ridden about a number of things, including air travel, hangnails, and nuts in food. But when faced with an actual dangerous situation, I was the last person to figure it out. My first reaction, as they pulled the emergency door latch, was to get annoyed. This seemed like just another CTA stupidity. Surely it would all stop and everything would go back to normal.
While I was pondering this, the whole car turned into a panic-ridden mob scene. People were shouting at each other not to panic, which seemed only to cause more panic. I tried to step out of the way as I hate to be pushed; someone grabbed my arm and dragged me back into the crowd, which surprised me into motion. There was more smoke and it started to get hard to see. I pulled my shirt over my nose and wondered if we should crawl, like I learned in school. I started to realize that this was serious, it was actually bad, and I wondered how much worse it was going to get.
I usually don’t mind being alone in a crowd, but I suddenly wished I had someone to talk to. I had no idea what to do. The conductor had vanished. I saw an old man sitting in a seat ahead of me and was relieved to see a young woman give him a hand. Behind me a big guy in a ball cap was shepherding his wife and yelling: “Let’s go! We’ve got a pregnant woman here!” I wondered where he thought he was going to take her, because I sure as hell didn’t know where I was going.
When we got to the doorway, people were jumping across a short distance to a narrow ledge running along the side of the tunnel. Some people fell between the wall and the train and had to be pulled back up. Although I didn’t worry about getting across the gap, I did wonder which way I should go from there. I hadn’t seen any flames, but there was a lot of smoke. It occurred to me—still quiet, still calm, not screaming—that I might not get out of the subway. I hadn’t told E. I was going downtown, and how long would it take him to figure out what had happened? And then I was out of the car and onto the ledge.
But going where? There was enough room to stand and a small handrail to hold on to, but there wasn’t enough room to walk forward; you had to face the wall and shuffle sideways. Some people were shuffling to my left, but since the smoke was coming from that direction, I opted to shuffle to the right.
It was mostly dark, except for an occasional light bulb in the wall. I was carrying a big purse and an umbrella, so it was hard to keep my balance. If I stopped, my legs shook so badly I didn’t think I could keep going, so I tried not to stop. I followed two African-American ladies in Sunday dresses and ahead of a middle-aged hippie type on a long, flowing dress. The tunnel continued to fill with smoke and the line didn’t seem to move very quickly. From time to time I heard rumblings in the tunnel, but it seemed like the rest of the normal world had disappeared.
The shuffling continued for a long time until we came across an emergency exit. Somehow someone from the CTA had re-materialized and I was shown to a ladder, at the top of which was daylight.
We had climbed out into the middle of an empty lot. I had no idea where we were, but according to the newspaper it was in the triangle created by the intersection of Halsted, Clyborn, and Ogden. It was at that time the projects; I’ve never gone back to see what it has become as the area has gentrified. It must have been a very odd sight; a lot of people emerging from the ground, covered in black grime and soot. Some people were scraped and bleeding, but there didn’t seem to be many very serious injuries. One woman with two small children in tow couldn’t find her teenage son; her worry was terrible to see (I never found out what happened, but he must have been found).
It’s not clear to me but we must have been instructed to stay there for a while, because everybody spent a lot of time milling around in the vacant lot. My mind was completely blank and it was very hard to think what to do. The fire department showed up and the police were there too, and eventually somebody turned on a fire hydrant so we could wash some of the grime off. The police were very jolly, as apparently there was no real work for them to do except to cheer people up. It was not so jolly when over the hill came, like an invading horde, the local news media. The last thing I wanted was to be on TV; I tried to hide behind the cops.
Eventually people began talking to each other, complete strangers, although you never speak to people on the train itself. I sat next to a kindly old guy in a green T-shirt for a while. “I only heard men yelling,” he told me. “All the women kept their heads.” Wiping my eyes, I agreed shakily. Another guy, a yuppie type, attached himself to me. “I had my head in the newspaper,” he said. “I didn’t know where we were. I thought we were walking back to Fullerton.” I must have laughed at that.
All the time I was trying to figure out the problem of getting home (I was now too dirty to go to work). I couldn’t imagine getting back on a train that day, but we were several blocks from any of the bus lines. Eventually we were pointed in the direction of North Avenue. I walked with Yuppie Guy who wouldn’t stop talking, but I had very little to say. For a long time we all waited at Crate & Barrel for a bus. An old man with bandages on his knees was telling some bystanders about the fire. He was carrying several plastic Jewel bags of groceries. “At least you got your food out,” I pointed out to him. “Yes,” he said. “I learned that in the concentration camp. No matter how bad it gets, you always save your food.”
Finally, alone on the bus, in complete safety and nowhere near fire, smoke, or the underground, I cried and cried all the way up Lincoln Avenue. I was unable to explain why to the clueless old ladies riding the bus with me. I spent the rest of the day on the couch staring straight ahead of me and coughing up black goo. (A few weeks later I talked on the telephone to a friend in Colorado who told me that about the same time she’d gone white-water rafting and been washed out of her canoe. As the water closed over her head, she said, she, too, was very calm. We marveled.)
The story did turned in the papers the next day. According to the Sun-Times, about 100 people were evacuated from the train but only 9 were injured. The fire was caused, the paper said, by a wooden support for the third rail which caught on fire, due maybe to an electrical fault or litter falling onto the rail and catching on fire. As for me, the only thing permanently damaged was my lime-green umbrella; I was never able to get all the soot out, and I never liked using it so much after that. Eventually it broke.
The Red Line still runs, of course. I try not to work on Sundays these days, but I still ride the subway. And when the train stops for no reason, I get a little nervous, but not much. If we need to evacuate again, at least I know the way out.Posted at August 01, 2003 05:20 PM