It was around 1:45 p.m. when I wrapped up my last media training session with one of the subject matter experts. After arriving on the eighth floor, I stopped to have a quick chat with a colleague. In the middle of our conversation, we felt the building shake.
Then there was another stronger movement: the building started swaying. The next movement felt like the eighth floor was sliding off of the top of the building. It was like someone pushing a book off a stack of eight. I immediately ran down eight flights of stairs in about two minutes wearing six-inch heels. (Although it was scary, I was proud of that moment.)
Over 5,000 of us stood outside trying to call our love ones; but cell phone service had failed. As many of us tried desperately to grasp what had just happened, we were reminded of Sept. 11, 2011.
Many of us had never experienced an earthquake. It just doesn’t happen on the East Coast. After the first rumble, I immediately thought we were under a terrorist attack. Most of the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia) folks who were here during 911 also feared the worst. It was clear during the next couple of hours when the District then experienced a “Hurricane” as frightened workers flooded the streets desperate to get home.
When I heard that our building was shut down, I followed hundreds of my colleagues toward the Suitland metro station. Over the loud speakers, a soothing voice informed us that metro trains were running at 15 mph – less than half the normal speed. We stood on the crowded platform for about 10 minutes before the green line to Greenbelt dragged up to the platform. The ride that usually takes about 25 minutes lingered another 15 or more as riders’ bodies remained pressed up against the bodies of strangers. Good job Washington Metro Transit Authority with handling the crisis by increasing and extending rush hour service. The next real “disaster” came when I arrived at Union Station around 4:20 p.m.
Frightened commuters spilled into the station that turned chaotic as they learned that Amtrak, MARC and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains suspended service. What made matters worst were the armed police officers with dogs that blocked every entrance to the platforms. It sure felt like Sept. 11 again as I stood there among a swarm of irritated people for over an hour waiting for my train to Baltimore. Then a disheveled woman— from the Maryland Transit Authority (MTA) who operates the MARC commuter trains –appeared and proceeded to announce departures with a blow horn.
Not sure why the additional dramatic flare was necessary since departures were announced on the loud-speaker and on the boards. At 6 p.m., the woman told us that the 5:50 p.m. train was boarding. But as we approached the train, we were stopped by a group of MTA employees lead by the same woman who told us to board. Then she shouted through the blow horn that they were checking the train’s capacity. But no one had boarded at that point; shouldn’t they have already known the capacity?
The MTA group proceeded to let a few passengers through; then blocked passage again. This continued for about ten minutes before another MTA employee shouted, “Let them all through.” An angry group of commuters then pushed their way onto the train. We sat at Union station for another 15 minutes and then the train crawled to New Carrollton. Over the loud speaker, we were told that the train was delayed due to other trains. I did not get to Baltimore until about 7:40 p.m.
According to the Washington Post, yesterday “a rare, powerful 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the eastern third of the United States and unnerved tens of millions of people from Georgia to New England”. The Post called the earthquake “the strongest East Coast tremor in 67 years, and it effectively blew up the workday in Washington on Tuesday.”
The MTA employees who worked the MARC commute yesterday further aggravated the workday. Good customer service includes treating your customers well during bad times. As a crisis communications specialist, MTA clearly lacked an effective crisis communications plan for its MARC service.
MTA, if you need me, I am available.