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Orange Line rider who shot video of train fire speaks out in op-ed

"Being burned alive while trapped in a 40-year-old bucket of bolts was simply not an option we cared to explore."

Sian Bernard
An Orange Line train caught on fire approaching a station in Somerville last Thursday.

An Orange Line rider who shot video during last Thursday’s train fire over the Mystic River is speaking out in a Boston Globe op-ed this week, offering vivid new descriptions of the chaos that ensued during that frightening event.

“Thursday’s train fire wasn’t my first time at the burning train rodeo,” wrote Jennifer Thomson-Sullivan, a Malden resident. “It was just the worst time.”

Thomson-Sullivan describes how what she first thought must have been a typical delay quickly escalated into panic.

“While I waited for the apologies over the loudspeaker, there came a series of bangs and flashes — as if someone had lit fireworks under the train,” she wrote. “And then the whole front of the car lit up with an intense orange glow as the smoke and flames outside appeared to instantly engulf it.

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“Panic shot through the car, and there was a rush to get as far away from the flames as possible,” she wrote.

After a man kicked out a window “like some kind of action movie hero,” Thomson-Sullivan describes the rush of people diving out, “utterly heedless of whatever dangers might lurk on the other side.” 

“Many of us believed an explosion was imminent, and being burned alive while trapped in a 40-year-old bucket of bolts was simply not an option we cared to explore,” she wrote.

As for the rider who jumped from the bridge where the train had stopped and plunged into the river below, “I don’t blame her,” Thomson-Sullivan wrote. “None of us knew what would happen next.”

The Orange Line incident, which ultimately resulted in no injuries, galvanized already pressing concerns about safety on the T, after several serious, and in at least one case deadly, incidents prompted a series of directives from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The MBTA told its board of directors on July 19 that the authority was on track to meet those federal goals.

But it was just a few days later that the Orange Line fire occurred, and on Monday of this week, a braking issue caused a Red Line train to roll hundreds of feet past Braintree station. Now, some legislators and others — including outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker — are questioning whether it’s time for the MBTA to be dissolved into the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

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Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, meanwhile, is urging the state to consider lengthy shutdowns to address safety and infrastructure problems in one fell swoop, or at least use a broader approach than the T’s recent piecemeal attempts at improvements.

For her part, Thomson-Sullivan says she at the very least would have liked to have heard from the T after the Orange Line incident.

“When I got home later that morning, I waited for the MBTA to call. No one did,” she wrote. “Every reporter in the New England area managed to find my number, though.”

Read her whole op-ed here.

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