SEPTA is asking riders to not panic and run on the tracks when they hear a loud noise, as happened Wednesday and wound up shutting down train traffic for a full hour.
Panicked passengers fleeing a Regional Rail car where “fire” was shouted wound up shutting down all train traffic for about an hour on Wednesday evening after they started walking on the tracks back to the station.
“We understand it was inconvenient for our riders during one of our busiest times of the day but our crews had to act quickly and responsibly, and it was the right thing to do,” said SEPTA assistant general manager Fran Kelly.
While Kelly said SEPTA is investigating the incident, it appears that people frightened by their own imaginations wound up causing hours of chaos for thousands of commuters.
The passengers where the panic originated were on a Paoli-Thorndale train that lost power. Passengers became frightened after hearing a loud bang, reportedly from a breaker being tripped as power was turned back on, causing the group to stampede out, multiple reports and eyewitnesses said.
Some kicked out windows, some ran through train cars, and others shouted fire as they fled onto the tracks, before marching back to the station.
"Some of us just jumped off the Paoli Septa train because there was a panic about non-existent fire," Comcast executive director of Artificial Intelligence products Jeanine Heck tweeted, along with a photo of the crowd, as she walked along the tracks.
“People just did things on their own and other people followed,” Kelly said. “People took it upon themselves to start self-evacuating and that became a dangerous situation.”
Meanwhile, right around 6 p.m. Wednesday, thousands of other Regional Rail commuters were stranded as fire alarms went off inside the Suburban Station concourse, with many pouring to the streets above seeking cabs home while all Regional Rail traffic through Center City was put on hold for an hour. Regular train service was not restored for an hour.
An investigation of the full incident is underway, Kelly said. He added that SEPTA is looking into ways to make more educational safety announcements.
Passengers are asked to report concerns and questions about their train to SEPTA staff, and to not evacuate or pursue other emergency measures unless directed to do so by SEPTA staff.
Humans in large groups are prone to a herd mentality that can cause panic to spread rapidly.
In 2015 in Mecca, the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia, some 2,000 Muslims participating in a religious hajj were crushed to death when a panic, the cause of which is disputed but was rumored to be over a report of a bomb, sparked a stampede.
Experts advise the public to avoid large crowds of people because of this possibility of panic and because once caught inside a stampede, escape is impossible.
If trapped in a stampede, the only option is to attempt to flow with the crowd and try not to fall.