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Sunday, August 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Monorail breaks down again

Seattle Times staff reporters

For the second time since it reopened earlier this month, a Seattle Center Monorail train came to a standstill Saturday.

In the late afternoon, a full load of passengers was held suspended on the curve of track above the corner of Denny Way and Fifth Avenue; the train tilted at about 30 degrees from the vertical.

All passengers were taken off within about 40 minutes. But disembarking passengers complained that the train had been overloaded, hot and airless. While some aboard made light of the stall — one group sang "Happy Birthday" — others were anxious over lack of communication from the monorail staff.

A Seattle Center spokesman said service would be suspended until engineers understood what had happened.

"Some people were crying and visibly shaken," said Karen Anderson, a visitor from Alberta, Canada. "People were just dripping sweat. We didn't know what was going on. There was no one on the intercom."

"There was no communication. No one [on the monorail staff] said anything," said Melissa Valentine of New York City. "A public-address-system announcement would have made a big difference for me."

One man, who complained of chest pains and hyperventilation, was taken to Swedish Medical Center for observation; his condition wasn't known at press time. A person in a wheelchair was also evacuated. Passengers said one woman had a severe asthma attack.

"It got really hot," said Valentine's husband, Clark Barrett. "One guy started yelling 'Open the door or I'm going to break the window.' "

After about 20 minutes, Valentine opened her Seattle Center Monorail tourist brochure and called the info line on her cellphone. From a recorded message, she got an emergency number and on that, a woman answered who said another train was on the way — the first information she'd had.

The other train pulled up a minute later, she said. The doors were opened and passengers began crossing on short ramps lowered between the trains, to be taken back to the Seattle Center station. The working train made three trips back and forth to the station before all passengers were off.

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A firetruck was parked on the street below but wasn't needed to help in the evacuation.

Carol Wendell of New York City complained that there was no ambulance or medical services at the station to meet those getting off, and she said she thought the staff on the train was too young and inexperienced and hadn't done anything.

"They say we'd be prepared for another 9/11. Know what, we won't," said Wendell. "Those children staffing that monorail, they didn't know what to do."

"We sat there and baked," she said. "Did you see that little baby drenched [in perspiration]? It's out of order."

Trouble from the start

The monorail ride had begun badly. At Seattle Center station, one train failed to start after several attempts, and all its passengers were taken off and loaded onto the other train, which was already full, according to accounts from half a dozen groups of disembarking passengers.

As a result, the train that stalled had many passengers without seats.

"I think they overfilled it," said Anderson, of Alberta. The train that wouldn't start initially was the one used later for the rescue.

Seattle Center spokesman David Heurtel said the evacuation took longer than normal because the person with chest pains and the person in a wheelchair were taken off first. But Heurtel said monorail officials were still investigating, and he had no information about the potential overloading or the lack of any intercom announcements to passengers.

Around 6 p.m., monorail service engineers left Seattle Center on the working train to go to the stranded train, Heurtel said.

Passengers can get a refund for unused tickets.

Earlier stall

Last Sunday, one of the monorail trains stalled for about 15 minutes around Fisher Plaza, just two days after a $3 million repair had returned the trains to service.

As they did Saturday, stranded passengers last Sunday walked across to the other train. Service was then suspended for the afternoon. Workers diagnosed the ailment last week as a minor glitch in a compressor, which automatically tripped the braking system.

The fix a week ago "was equivalent to rebooting a computer," said Regan Erskine, Seattle Center spokeswoman.

Until its recent return to service, the monorail service had been undergoing repairs since the two trains sideswiped on Thanksgiving weekend. The damage was repaired, and an automatic braking system was installed that is designed to prevent a similar crash.

Seattle Center tried to reopen the line July 18, but doors and air-braking systems malfunctioned during a test the night before — postponing the restart by four more weeks.

Passengers interviewed after Saturday's mishap were unaware of that problematic history. As they described the details, all were clearly relieved that the period of adrenaline and alarm was over. The last ones off had spent about 40 minutes stuck on the train.

Barrett of New York City said that he was on the side of the train tilted toward the ground and that someone had opened one of the doors on that side to get some air. When a teenager moved to open the door beside him, he stopped her, fearful of people falling. But the one open door did let in air and helped calm people, he said.

"They really should have had a better plan," Barrett said. "A way to get air without exposing yourself to a two-story drop would be good."

Anderson was traveling with her husband, Trent, and her two children, Madison, 10, and Des, 12. She said that the couple tried not to alarm the children and remarked that it was an adventure.

"The scariest part was being on that angle," Anderson said. "We thought we might tip over. A lot of passengers were moving to the other side."

"It was kind of scary," said Madison. "And kind of cool."

"It was a bit terrifying," said her mother. "I'm glad we're back here on the ground."

Some information in this report came from The Seattle Times archives.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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