In 1956 a five-alarm fire consumed the Wanamaker’s Department Store in New York City.
Firefighters doused the burning building with their hoses for days.
They sprayed so much water that it flooded the subway station below.
The earth underneath one of the railroad beds collapsed, and a train sank five feet into the hole. Thank God, not a soul on the train was injured.
It was July 14, 11:50 p.m.
At 12:02 a.m. on July 20, the subway began operating through the Astor Place station again. Everything had been completely repaired in five days and twelve minutes.
It was a miracle of decisiveness, engineering efficiency, and wholesome pride.
I thought of this when the following happened yesterday:
The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority Board, chaired by D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, voted 4 to 1 to renew the contract of Metro chief John Catoe.
At that very moment, FBI agents were in the office of Councilman Graham’s chief of staff Ted Loza, collecting evidence for a bribery case against him.
The day before, Graham had said that Metro has been subject to demonic attack this year.
“We’re having the heavens open, and all manner of demons have been unleashed.”
He really did say this. Councilman Graham said it when he was asked by a reporter whether or not Catoe should have to take any of the blame for the fact that Metro has become a tragic laughingstock.
Perhaps the venerable Councilman was just being poetic when he chalked the problems up to demons from heaven.
Hopefully the man is aware that God and the good angels are in heaven, and the demons are in the other place.
Hopefully he knows that demons tend to focus on enticing people to commit sins, like taking bribes or attempting to “marry” someone of the same sex.
On the other hand, fatal subway crashes, endless delays, surprise station closures, and other signs of managerial incompetence are usually atributable to human error.
…For the record, my disapproval of John Catoe’s regime began two years ago, when he instituted the following public-address message in the stations:
We have a lot of escalators in our system. You’ll notice that most people stand on the right side. And while you’re riding, hold the handrail for your safety. Enjoy your trip, and thank you for riding Metro.
This is not an effective message. It is an effete message.
But Catoe did not want to insist that anyone stand to the right. He didn’t want to give an order. He thought doing so would only encourage Type-A personalities to rush through stations in a furious hurry on the left.
Call me a Type-A personality if you want–call me something worse–but I do not think “stand to the right” is a suggestion. It is like the eleventh Commandment. It is escalator Rule Number One.
1956 in New York: The I.R.T. has a subway station which has been flooded by the Fire Department, and there is a train sunk into the roadbed. Everything is fully repaired and operational five days later.
2009 in Washington: John Catoe does not want to encourage rushing. It is the deadliest, most bogged-down year in the history of Metro. The WMATA Board renews his contract and gives him a standing ovation.