Death in the Dark: The 1995 Baku Metro Fire

Background

Baku has rail connections to Turkey and Russia as well as an extensive freight rail network, as well as an underground Metro system with currently 25 stations on 36.7km/22.8mi of tracks crisscrossing the city. Opened in November 1967 the electrified system uses a third rail system (similar to slot cars) providing trains with 825 Volts DC. After expansions in the 70s and 80s more than doubled the network’s size to its current expansion the Metro carries approximately 608 thousand people per day with schedules running trains as close as 2 minutes apart. Inspired by the Moscow Metro a lot of the station got an ornate and detailed design, however the tunnels are quite different, being narrow (5m/16ft wide and 5.6m/18ft high) and largely dark with scarce lighting from a couple of exposed light bulbs on the ceiling.

The approximate site of the fire. The train came from Ulduz station (visible to the upper right of the marker).

The train involved

A Metrovagonmash 81 in service with the Moscow Metro in 2009. Baku’s trains were identical except for a blue rather than turquoise upper section.

The accident

A graphic from a news report at the time, showing where the train broke down. The gray structure is Ulduz station

As the driver reports the incident and demands that his superiors shut off power to the tunnel to enable a safer evacuation the fire starts finding its way into the train, feeding mostly on the seating and interior paneling. The doors on car 4 were jammed close, in a growing panic the passengers try to break the windows to get out of the train or climb over into car 3 and 5. Soon, an evening commute turns into a small metal tube in absolute darkness filling with suffocating toxic smoke while holding a thousand panicked terrified people. Some people manage to climb out of the rear train cars by breaking windows, but the new openings also mean smoke goes inside the train faster. Smoke and fire soon make the escape down the tunnel to nearby Ulduz station difficult if not impossible especially for those in the forward three cars, leading most passengers to try their luck by heading towards Narimanov station 2km/1.2mi away.

Another graphic, showing the route of initial survivors also taken by increasing amounts of smoke.

As they try to make their way through the dark tunnel people reportedly grabbed each other’s clothing or used the walls and track for guidance, in the chaos a number of initial survivors grabbed the third rail before power was shut off, suffering lethal electric shocks. It took fifteen minutes for the ventilation system to be adjusted from the usual setting to the emergency setting that is meant to evacuate smoke. Until then the smoke had slowly moved to and through Ulduz station, following the same route as a handful of survivors mostly from the rear car. Now it was quickly being pumped towards Narimanov, where most initial survivors had decided to go. Emergency services found themselves unable to help much once they arrived at Ulduz station as the smoke kept them from entering the tunnel, limiting them to receiving survivors who made it to the surface. Tragically responders had been dispatched exclusively to Ulduz station, meaning the survivors who managed to make their way to Narimanov and get to the surface found themselves about as alone as they had been in the tunnel. By the time the last survivor made it out of the tunnel 303 people had died (other sources claim 292 or 337), over 500 were hospitalized about half of which for severe injuries.

Aftermath

Investigators traced the fire to the mentioned electrical box on car 4, but that alone shouldn’t have had such severe consequences. An examination of identical trains showed that around 80% of the materials inside the train were flammable, giving the fire plenty of food to quickly spread throughout the stricken train. Most materials being synthetics also meant there were plenty of poisonous gasses in the smoke. There had actually been a new generation of the train introduced into service a few years prior to the fire that had a more flame-resistant interior, however the Baku Metro did not use that version. This matched an ongoing problem the country had in its public transport, dealing with outdated equipment and poor maintenance due to insufficient funding.

The aftermath in the forward cars, while they didn’t burn they still became a death trap due to panic and smoke.

A Mister Chingiz Babayev, Senior Lieutenant of a local Military Academy was aboard the train and helped several passengers escape. He did not survive the accident himself and was posthumously awarded the title “National Hero of Azerbaijan” for saving a significant number of lives in what is considered the world’s deadliest subway disaster (a title previously held by the 1918 Malbone Street Derailment in New York which claimed 93 lives). In the end the supreme court of Azerbaijan sentenced the metro operator to 15 years in prison and the station traffic controller to 10 years for criminal negligence, blaming them for the poor condition of the tunnel and train as well as the slow and lacking response. How much of the poor state of the Metro actually was their fault is up for debate.

Flowers being laid down at a Baku Metro station in 2014.

Even today, 25 years later, there are still claims that the cause was actually a bomb or an arson attack, however, no solid evidence for either theory has ever been found. The theory’s main origin is a claim made by President Heydar Aliyev to a US Official. The theory is not completely baseless, with 20 people dying in two terrorist attacks on the metro the year before. The matter is complicated by the bombing and the fire often being mixed up, labeling information on either as belonging to the other. The trains of the Metro were upgraded a few times after the accident, and have started to be retired in 2012, being replaced with completely new trains (Metrowagonmash 81–760/-761) in 2015. Bringing unsatisfactory performance the trains started being replaced as early as 2018 with new 81–765.B “Moscow” trains.

One of the brand new “Moscow”-type trains in service in April 2018.

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