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MTA admits subway spill errors

Agency waited eight hours to act after being told that mercury was on a Red Line platform. `Basic protocols weren't followed,' Molina says.

January 19, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Who is the young man in the sports coat shown on a grainy videotape spilling mercury on a platform of the Red Line subway station at Pershing Square?

When it happened on Dec. 22, officials quickly labeled it a harmless accident.

But Thursday, officials acknowledged that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority botched its response, waiting eight hours after being told mercury was on the platform before clearing the station and cleaning up the spill.

Police and transit officials said the workers erred by not immediately contacting law enforcement to cordon off the area and calling in hazardous-material experts.

The incident also exposed the fact that many MTA workers are not trained to handle dangerous materials such as mercury.

Though no one was injured, the incident marked the first time the MTA faced the release of a potentially hazardous substance in the subway system.

Saying that "basic protocols were not followed," MTA Chairwoman Gloria Molina on Thursday ordered an immediate investigation into what went wrong.

Several terrorism experts said Thursday that the MTA's handling of the incident was troubling.

"It's unnerving, a wake-up call," said USC professor James Moore, an expert in transportation and a researcher with USC's Terrorism Center.

"The lesson is that no matter how you slice it, the system isn't prepared to respond adequately. We really don't know what caused this failure, but we need to find out."

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the MTA has repeatedly touted its beefed-up security measures and increased employee training. But the bulk of the $9 million spent to improve security has focused mostly on preventing a terrorist bombing.

"We deal with suspicious packages, abandoned packages, white powdery substances," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Dan Finkelstein, who oversees security for the transit authority. "This is something that's never happened before."

Finkelstein and others said MTA workers were caught unprepared by the released mercury because it was a scenario they had not dealt with.

"What we need to do is educate all levels throughout our system, whether it's intercom operators or maintenance staff, as well as bus or rail operators," Finkelstein added.

But county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the MTA board, said workers shouldn't need special training to know that they should call 911 if someone says he dumped mercury in a subway station.

"It's an embarrassment," he said. "Eight hours depending upon the substance ... could have been deadly."

On Thursday, security was increased at the Pershing Square station and on subway trains as federal and local law enforcement sought the public's help -- even posting fliers -- in locating the man who released the mercury. (The station serves about 122,000 riders a day.)

Finkelstein said the Sheriff's Department also has significantly increased the number of undercover officers riding rail lines in recent days.

Mercury can cause severe health problems if inhaled, ingested or touched. Officials said they believed no one was injured because of exposure to the metal.

Officials with the Joint Terrorism Task Force said there is no evidence to suggest the incident was terrorism, or even a criminal act.

One theory is that the man carrying the mercury used the element in jewelry manufacturing or refrigerator repair.

Video released by the Sheriff's Department on Thursday shows the man crouching on the Pershing Square subway platform before dropping a vial of liquid, possibly spilling it out.

The man jumped to his feet. He searched for and located an MTA intercom, on which officials say he called an operator.

According to law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation, the man told the operator: "I spilled mercury."

It wasn't until eight hours later, at 6:51 a.m. on Dec. 23, that sheriff's deputies were alerted to the spill.

They arrived eight minutes later, closing the station and calling in a hazardous-materials team from the Los Angeles City Fire Department. (Trains had continued running during six of those eight hours.)

Commuters were critical of the MTA's response.

"It seems like they should have sealed the station off before then," said Los Angeles resident Roy Horton, 59, as he waited for the subway Thursday afternoon. "It shows me that they have less concern for the patrons who use the system."

Aaron Trask, a Sherman Oaks resident who regularly rides the Red Line, said the incident has shaken his confidence in the system.

"I am considering not riding until someone can tell us why there was a complete lack of response to this incident," he wrote in an e-mail.

Well before 9/11, subways were considered potential targets for terrorism.

Members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult unleashed sarin nerve gas inside the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and sickening thousands of others.

More recently, terrorist bombs killed hundreds in Madrid and London.

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