STM defends response to rush-hour pepper spray incident that paralyzed 3 Metro lines

A pepper-spray incident in a Metro car travelling between Champ-de-Mars and Berri stations left commuters stranded for more than an hour Wednesday morning, sending two people to hospital.

Shutdown left thousands of passengers stranded on Yellow, Orange and Green lines

Three of Montreal's Metro lines were partially shut down Wednesday morning after a pepper-spray incident on a Metro car, causing backups and delays throughout the network. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

A pepper-spray incident in a Metro car travelling between Champ-de-Mars and Berri stations shut down three lines of Montreal's Metro system during rush hour Wednesday morning, sending two people to hospital.

The incident occurred shortly after 8 a.m., paralyzing Metro service on the Orange, Green and Yellow lines for about an hour. 

Stéphane Smith, a spokesperson for Urgences-santé, said at a total of nine people had to be treated because of the noxious fumes, although most suffered minor symptoms, including coughing and sore throats.

Montreal firefighters say there was an altercation in a Metro car that was heading to the Berri-UQAM station. 

At first, it was not clear what chemical irritant was released during that altercation, but a senior official with the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) later verified it was, indeed, pepper spray.

The shutdown left dense crowds of delayed Metro users gathered on platforms along the the three lines, with the Orange line closed from Lionel-Groulx to Beaubien and the Green line, from Lionel-Groulx to Frontenac.

The STM says downtown buses were also delayed by the shutdown.

Around 9 a.m., the STM reported service was resuming on the Yellow and Green lines. The Orange line resumed shortly thereafter.

Firefighters, ambulances and police thronged the Champs-de-Mars Metro station after pepper spray was deployed on a car travelling between that station and Berri. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

"Because of the proximity between Champ-de-Mars and Berri, and the air that is connected between the two stations, we had to close a portion of the Green, the Yellow and the Orange lines so we could evacuate the substance out of the station," said STM spokesperson Alain Legault.

The incident did not affect the entire network, he added, but just a portion so the stations could be ventilated.

STM defends response to incident

The STM's response to the incident was met with mixed reviews. Some commuters complained communication should have been better, while others commended the STM's efforts to keep the public informed.

The STM made announcements over the Metro's intercom system and posted updates to social media.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and STM Chair Philippe Schnobb, speaking at a news conference following the incident, said emergency protocols had been followed. (Radio-Canada)

With Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante at his side, STM chair Philippe Schnobb defended the public transit agency's handling of the situation at a news conference late Wednesday morning.

"We wanted to prevent the pepper spray from spreading between the Green line, the Orange line and the Yellow line," Schnobb said. "We had to ventilate the system before [resuming service]."

When it comes to the STM's emergency response, there is always room for improvement, he said, but the agency can only transmit what information it has — information, he noted, that needs to be verified.

"There is an investigation going on. We will be reviewing surveillance footage to determine precisely what happened," he said. "We assumed it was pepper spray, there was a high probability, but we didn't know for sure."

There is a process for ventilating Metro lines when events like this occur, and firefighters are called in to verify the air is safe to breathe before lines are reopened, he said.

The Metro is already properly ventilated, he said, although the STM is currently improving the system along the Green line.

While Schnobb said he's not happy that thousands of public transit users were delayed, he said protocol was followed in this case.

Plante said she is proud of the way the situation was handled, as the STM and first responders followed the emergency plan that is in place.

Metro riders late for work, appointments

Metro user Stephanie Neves was headed to work this morning, and she said arriving late would not make her look good in the eyes of her employer.

"Clearly, it's not moving very fast, and it's disrupting my day," she told CBC. "So everything is going to be delayed because the Metro is delayed."

She blames unreliable Metro service for being late about once a week, something she says is frustrating as the monthly fee for an Opus card continues to rise.

Raheleh Zarei says she wasn't affected by the airborne substance, but she was 30 minutes late for her doctor's appointment. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Raheleh Zarei was 30 minutes late for her doctor's appointment. She said she was in the Metro when the delay started.

She said the public intercom system at first announced the delay would last 30 minutes, then an announcement came on to say it would be another 30.

Frédéric Simard said he was trying to get to his first day of work at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM) — his first job after school in research and development. 

Frédéric Simard left his home early, hoping to get to his first day on the job on time, but he was delayed by the Metro shutdown. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

He said he felt really bad for being late.

"It's been a month that I've been preparing, and today is the big day, and I'm, unfortunately, an hour late," he told CBC.

"I've been awake for two hours — I was two hours early — but I've been an hour waiting in the Metro now."

The Yellow line was also affected by the rush-hour shutdown, leaving commuters stuck waiting at the Longueuil Metro station on the South Shore. (Submitted by Josianne Pelletier)

With files from Verity Stevenson and Kate McKenna


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