For dozens of CTA passengers, it was an unsettling, even downright scary ride on the Red Line. On June 20, smoke filled the subway tunnel near the Clark and Division stop on the Near North Side and passengers were given little information or assurance.
"It was really quite unnerving," said Lindsey Ball. She was one of the passengers aboard two Red Line trains that drove through the fire and smoke that day. "There was smoke filling the train as we were going forward and our operator didn't really say anything, give us any information or indication as to when we would be at a station or what was going on at all."
FOX Chicago News and the Better Government Association have obtained a scathing CTA internal report which criticizes the cause of the accident as well as some aspects of the agency's response.
The investigation, which is marked "priveleged and confidential," lays out a litany of problems.
Investigators determined the fire was caused by a spark from a passing train in the northbound lanes of the Red Line tunnel. The spark set fire to debris laying on the tracks which had been coated in grease. The report found the tracks had been excessively greased in order to reduce noise and friction on a sharp curve.
The CTA said it is now trying to find a new grease product with a higher flashpoint and has ordered maintenence crews to use less grease.
"There may be some additional noise as you go through those curves that will affect our customers, but we felt that was the right balance given the risk of fire and to mitigate that risk," said CTA Chief Safety and Security Officer Amy Kovalan.
The report also recommends a regular schedule to clean trash on the rails.
The investigation also found numerous problems with the CTA's response to the fire, which sent 19 people to the hospital with smoke inhalation.
After spotting the fire on the rails, the operator of the first train was unable to make immediate contact with the CTA Control Center because his radio battery had died. The operator was forced to use a backup cellphone.
After the operator reported the fire, the Control Center called 911 to alert the Department of Emergency Management. Fire crews were quickly dispatched to the scene. But when the train's operator called back to report the fire appeared to be diminishing, a Control supervisor called 911 a second time and told dispatchers the fire trucks would not be needed. That supervisor has now been fired.
Firefighters ignored the advice and continued to the scene, proving instrumental in helping passengers climb out of the subway tunnel to the street.
"There's one word for that and that's chaos," said Lawrence Ruder, a lawyer representing two of the passengers who suffered smoke inhalation. "There was a horrendous lack of protocol and organization when this occurence took place."
The report is also critical of the fact that a second train berthed at Chicago Avenue, the previous stop, was allowed to proceed through the tunnel to the area where the fire was still burning.
"It's amazing even the second train went through if there was smoke in the tunnel," said Ball, a passenger on the second train. "I don't know why you head through full smoke towards the unknown but, I mean, just lots of these kinds of procedures need to be looked at."
The report recommends the establishment of written procedures stating firefighters must be called whenever there is smoke in the subway regardless of reports from the field, and procedures requiring trains be berthed whenever there is a report of smoke in the subway.
FOX Chicago News and the BGA also learned the accident could have been much worse. Investigators found open buckets of grease next to the southbound tracks of the same section of Red Line track. If those open grease buckets had been near the fire they could have dramatically increased the smoke and flames.
"They got lucky," said Ruder. "It's unfortunate that it happened but they were very very lucky that no one died. And I'm hoping the CTA will take their investigation to heart, will put very strict protocols for situations like this so something like this can never happen again."