Death in the Dark: The 1995 Baku Metro Fire

Baku is a city of 2.29 million people (as of 2020) and the capitol of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the Eurasian Caucasus area. The city is located on a peninsula in the Caspian Sea, 1445km/898mi east of Ankara in Turkey and 540km/335.5mi north of Teheran in Iran (both measurments in linear distance).

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).

At the time of the accident the Baku Metro exclusively used Metrovagonmash 81–717/81–714 trains, 717 referring to control cars and 714 to middle cars. First entering service in 1977 for various metros within the Soviet Union and even a few other nations (within the Warsaw Pact) these electrical multiple units consist of 2 control cars and 1–6 middle cars depending on the demand and city (the exception is Yerevan Metro in Armenia which runs 2-car-units without middle cars). Each car weighs 34 metric tons at 19m/62ft in length and offers 46 seats along with space for 286 standing passengers (the control cars offer space for 268 standing and 40 seated passengers). The trains for the Baku Metro use the “Soviet Gauge” wide track of 1524mm (most railways use the “standard gauge” of 1435mm) and have a power output of 440kw/590hp, enough for decent acceleration and a top speed of 90kph/56mph.

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.

On the 28th of October 1995 at approximately 5:58pm a five-car train leaves Ulduz station in northern Baku, heading towards Narimanov station just 2.2km/1.36 miles linear distance to the southwest. It’s the middle of rush hour, the 30 years old train is filled with over 1000 passengers as it heads into the tunnel. Witnesses later claim that they saw a flash at the rear of the train just as it dove into the tunnel, either way just seconds into the trip flames can be seen on the outside of the train. Passengers in the rear control car smell smoke but see none, while survivors from the fourth car see white smoke which soon turns black. An undefined defect in an electrical box at the back of car 4 had caused an electric arc, causing the initial smoke before emitting sparks that caught the train on fire. With its electrical system dying a fiery death the train breaks down at 6pm, coming to a stop just 200m/656ft into the tunnel. More and more smoke fills the air outside the train and starts seeping into the train also, within seconds the light bulbs are covered up and the tunnel is plunged into darkness.

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.

It took hours for the fire to run out of flammable material and for the smoke to clear enough so that the fire department could send responders into the tunnel. They came upon an unimaginable massacre, finding the remains of 40 people (37 passengers and 3 earlier responders) outside the train and over 260 victims inside the burned train. Most of the victims had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, but later autopsies revealed that a number of people especially inside car 4 had also died from being crushed when the panic inside the confined space grew out of control. Some consider it almost a good thing that the smoke meant most victims passed out in seconds and didn’t witness their deaths or that of the people around them. The accident was a shock for the country, and 2 days of national mourning were declared. The victims’ funerals were paid by the government and relatives of victims and survivors received financial compensation.

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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