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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
April 20, 2006
Options Were Limited After a Power Surge
New York Times

A day after the Roosevelt Island Tramway stalled in midair, trapping dozens of passengers for as long as 11 hours, officials said that a backup power system designed to restart the two tram cars in seconds had been out of service for months.

That disclosure came as the tram remained shut down yesterday, after an improvised rescue effort that freed the last of 20 passengers stranded in a tram car 200 feet above the East Side of Manhattan. By then, after 4 a.m., 48 other passengers trapped in a tram car above the East River had already been evacuated, bringing to an end to a late-afternoon tram ride that had turned into a nightlong ordeal.

As relieved passengers recounted how they had passed the hours — chatting, telling jokes and calling family and friends on cellphones — officials began investigating why the incident had forced the police and emergency teams to devise an evacuation plan on the spot.

And as the state-appointed official who oversees Roosevelt Island defended the tram as "an intimate part of the Roosevelt Island mystique," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave it a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement: The subway, he said, was a faster way to travel to and from the island. It was not clear yesterday how long the tram would be closed.

The Swiss-made tramway, which went into operation in 1976, stalled when a power surge knocked out three giant fuses that control the flow of power to the tram cars. It was not clear why the fuses could not simply be replaced and the tramway restarted. But the tramway also has a diesel-powered system that can run the gears and cables and make the cars go.

Herbert E. Berman, the president of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state agency that manages the 147-acre island, said the backup system was removed for repairs last fall on orders of the State Department of Labor, the agency responsible for inspecting the tramway. He also said the system was not required, but inspectors said that if it was going to be used, it had to work.

But he said the surge that knocked out the main system could have disabled the secondary power system as well. He said it was expected to be returned and re-installed in a matter of weeks.

So rescuers assembled a cagelike rescue basket that had been stored on Roosevelt Island, but never used in a real emergency, to carry the passengers to safety from the tram car over the East River. But the rescuers improvised a way to carry the people in the second tram car to safety after realizing that otherwise they would have to wait until the first evacuation had been completed.

Mr. Berman said that in the tramway's 30 years, emergency procedures had never been needed before. "That's a pretty good record," he said. The rescue, he added, "was a tedious process, but it was a safe process."

The mayor said the rescue effort had "worked perfectly."

"It was a classic operation of this city," he told reporters at Fire Department headquarters in Brooklyn, "and it showed that all of these people worked together. We did what we had to do; we got everybody down safely."

Mr. Bloomberg said it took so long to evacuate the two tram cars "because our emergency response people did exactly what they should do."

"They didn't rush to do anything just to satisfy a beat-the-clock kind of exercise," he said.

And, as other officials noted yesterday, when the tram stopped about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Fire Department workers who arrived at the scene believed that the power would go back on quickly. For that reason, department personnel who had been trained to rescue passengers from the tram were sent to other duties.

In fact, the power did come on again, at about 8:15. The two tram cars moved about 75 feet, only to grind to a halt again.

That was when the Police Department's emergency service unit took over. Officers from that unit had been working on a rescue plan just in case, and at 8:30 they decided to go ahead with it.

They started with the tram car on the Roosevelt Island side because it was carrying more passengers. After the basket was assembled at the end of the tramway, about a dozen officers and firefighters — who by then had returned to the scene — climbed in to test how much it could hold.

By then it was almost 11 p.m., and the passengers had been stuck for six hours. Four officers, all trained as emergency medical technicians, rode out in the cage.

David Keller, a passenger in the stalled tram car, said that he and another man, along with the tram operator, had removed two windows using tools that the operator found in a toolbox in the car.

"At this point, people were a little nervous," Mr. Keller said. "Now you've got the windows out, and here comes this little basket. Nobody was hysterical or crying. Some of the kids were nervous with their moms, but they were told everything would be all right."

Two of the officers climbed into the tram car, introduced themselves and won the crowd's confidence, Mr. Keller said. They soon worked out an exit route, which involved stepping onto one of the tram's bench seats, onto the window frame, across a gap some passengers said was as wide as four feet and then into the rescue cage.

"That was scary," said Jeanne Raichle, another passenger. "I was really glad to get on that basket."

The weather helped, Mr. Keller said. There was little wind. "I've been on there in storms and bounced around," he said. "But the water was even pretty placid for the East River."

Mr. Keller said that for the first couple of hours, the tram car had been quiet and the passengers had kept to themselves. Then, he said, "we all started joking." Mr. Keller said that Dax Maier, 12, who was heading to Roosevelt Island for a tennis lesson, told jokes to the crowd, and his mother cautioned him by cellphone to tell clean jokes.

The cage made five trips before the tram car was empty, the first at 11:15 p.m. on Tuesday, the last at 2:55 a.m. yesterday.

Some passengers said communication between the tram operators — one in each car — and officials on the ground left them uncertain about what was being done to bring the tramway back to life. Mr. Keller said the tram operator's walkie-talkie failed around 10 p.m. "He had a cellphone, and he told the tower, 'This is my number,' " Mr. Keller recalled.

Officials debated whether to use a fire ladder or a crane to reach the tram that was stuck near First Avenue. They settled on hiring a crane, which took a couple of hours to reach the scene.

And in a display of ingenuity, the crane was used to hoist an elevatorlike device called a "man-bucket," which was lashed to the tram car while police officers on the ground held guide ropes to keep the bucket from swaying. It was 4:07 a.m. when the last passenger was finally plucked from the tram.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Al Baker, Diane Cardwell, Sarah Garland, Kate Hammer and Michael Luo.

141,273 Posts
Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Time To Shut the Tram To Roosevelt Island
Davidson Goldin
21 April 2006
The New York Sun

The Roosevelt Island tram's two gondolas are now safely tucked away on solid ground. That's where they should stay. The money-losing tourist attraction, operated by a state authority, is obsolete and unsafe.

We've all heard the good news from Tuesday evening's malfunction: The 68 people trapped in midair when the trams stalled were all eventually retrieved safely. Police and fire rescuers worked as a team. Private industry pitched in with a crane. While skill and hard work made these successes possible, luck was a big part of this story.

Here's what didn't happen the other night, but could have led to a very different outcome: Winds weren't howling. Rain wasn't pouring down. Both trams weren't stuck above the East River. There were no medical emergencies. And perhaps most significantly, the trams weren't crowded.

Each gondola has a 126-person capacity. The island-bound tram had 47 people aboard, while the Manhattan bound tram had just 21 passengers. The dearth of rush-hour passengers helps explain the safe rescue, and also helps explain why the tram operation is in the red.

Police commanders waited three hours to implement their rescue plan, holding out hope that - like every other time the increasingly unreliable tram system lost power over the last three decades - the power would 305 2174 412 2185come back on within a few hours. Once the rescue did begin, police needed two hours to set up the rescue bucket. And when the 12-person bucket finally began the slow trek toward the 47 island-bound people hovering over the East River, the process was maddeningly slow. Four round-trip rescue missions took about five hours.

What if the tram had been at capacity? Rescuing a full load would have required seven more trips, another seven hours, lasting until almost noon. Passengers whose supposedly four minute ride began just after 5 p.m. Tuesday would have been dangling above the East River for 18 hours. Realizing the bucket's effectiveness was significantly diminished by its tediousness, city officials called in a crane to retrieve the 21 Manhattan bound passengers.

But what if that tram, suspended over First Avenue, had been just a few hundred yards away, over the East River? The crane wouldn't have been an option. The rescue process, relying on that single bright orange bucket, would have dragged on into the next evening.

Tram fanatics could soon have new gondolas to gawk at. A more elaborate tram system is planned for linking Manhattan and Brooklyn to Governors Island. Presumably a modern tram will come with a modern power supply and a modern rescue plan.

Roosevelt Island's tram is outdated and unreliable. It became redundant when the MTA opened a subway station on the island two decades ago. Those shiny red gondolas are long overdue for a museum. Or a trash heap. Anywhere but in the air.

Mr. Goldin's column appears regularly.
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