Inadequate staffing, poor communication and ineffective crowd control led to chaos at MARTA's Five Points Station after the college football national championship last month, the agency's top executives said Thursday.
Far fewer employees showed up to work the night of the game than expected, the executives told the MARTA Board at its monthly meeting. Those that did show up weren’t enough to control the crowds, as too many people jammed into trains, pressing up against train doors and causing them to open automatically. That prevented trains from leaving the station.
Poor communication between the staff at different stations made it difficult for MARTA to stem the tide of passengers that kept flowing into Five Points, even though the station was already packed.
MARTA executives said they're already taking steps to prevent a repeat when Atlanta hosts the Super Bowl next February. Board Chairman Robbie Ashe told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he's confident the agency will learn from the debacle.
“Figuring out what you did wrong is a painful process,” Ashe said. “But it’s how you get better.”
Thursday's briefing was the most detailed explanation to date of the MARTA mishaps that followed Alabama's victory over Georgia in the national championship game.
Witnesses told the AJC that conditions at Five Points — MARTA’s hub station — were dangerous and frightening. They said it was so crowded that people struggled to get off arriving trains. Many passengers were frustrated, and some were pushing and shoving.
“I called 911,” said Atlanta resident Tom Levine, who was stranded at the station. “People started pushing on the trains. You had this feeling that at any minute it could turn into something that wasn’t pretty.”
Nearly an hour and a half of MARTA surveillance video reviewed by the AJC shows hundreds of passengers jammed onto a platform waiting for northbound trains until nearly 2 a.m. after the Jan. 8 game.
According to the time-stamped video, the crowd on the platform began to swell about 12:45 a.m. while a train waited to depart the station. During the wait, the growing crowd pressed against the train, with the doors sometimes opening and closing automatically.
Some frustrated passengers walked away, but others kept arriving. Finally, after 22 minutes, the train departed. Some of those still stranded in the station raised their hands and cheered.
The next train arrived and departed quickly, the video shows. But the following train was stuck for 20 minutes.
MARTA has said two medical emergencies at separate stations delayed some trains. But huge crowds pressing against the trains – and opening the doors – also were a factor. After trains started arriving and departing frequently, the crowd dispersed.
Chief Operating Officer Richard Krisak told the board that MARTA anticipated serving 15,000 football fans, but ended up carrying 22,000.
Passengers told the AJC they searched in vain for MARTA employees to tell them what was happening.
Deputy General Manager Rob Troup told the board there weren’t enough employees available to handle the crowd. The agency asked for volunteers to work extra hours, but the employee turnout was 30 percent less than expected, he said.
A likely reason, according to MARTA spokeswoman Stephany Fisher: Fear of inclement weather the day of the game led many school districts to close, which may have wreaked havoc with parents’ schedules.
Compounding the lack of staffing was the poor communication. Krisak said employees at different stations didn’t communicate with each other. So instead of preventing passengers from boarding trains bound for Five Points, employees let them through – even though Five Points was already overcrowded.
“What it really comes down to is we just let Five Points get totally overwhelmed,” Krisak said.
Executives said the staff is discussing everything from mandatory extra hours for employees during big events to handing out bullhorns so they can better communicate with passengers. MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham observed operations at last weekend’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis in preparation for Atlanta’s own moment on the big stage next year.
Ashe said he believes MARTA won’t let last month’s events happen again.
“I have real confidence in our staff, that they’ll learn from this,” he said.
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