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MBTA Ceiling Panel Falls and Nearly Strikes Rider, Prompting System-Wide Inspection

A fallen ceiling panel that nearly struck a commuter Friday has prompted new questions about the safety of Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority stations.
A fallen ceiling panel that nearly struck a commuter Friday has prompted new questions about the safety of Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority stations. By Claire Yuan
By Dylan H. Phan and Jack R. Trapanick, Crimson Staff Writers

After a ceiling panel fell and nearly hit a rider at the Harvard Square station on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Red Line Wednesday afternoon, the transit system began an audit of all similar panels on Friday.

The 20 to 25 pound aluminum panel that fell on the train platform was among several hundred installed in 1978 for aesthetics and sound insulation — making it almost half a century old.

Jeffrey D. Gonneville, interim general manager of the MBTA, said during a Friday press conference that “preliminary observations” determined that the ceiling structure failed due to water corrosion, citing the “wet state that it had been in for a number of years.”

“Our initial findings show that over time water had accumulated in the panel insulation & corroded the metal rivets holding it in place,” the MBTA wrote in a tweet on Friday.

Gonneville added, however, that “MBTA third-party engineers performed a detailed safety inspection in 2021 of Harvard station and found no physical defects identified with these panels.”

The MBTA is inspecting similar insulation panels across its system and removing those that serve only an aesthetic purpose to give inspectors access to the ceiling space above, Gonneville said.

Gonneville reassured riders that the panels’ removal is not indicative of worsening structural integrity, but is necessary to ensure safety.

“Aesthetics are important, but the safety of these stations, the safety of the system, is of greater importance,” Gonneville said.

As of Friday afternoon, the MBTA removed about 10 panels from the Harvard Square station, according to Gonneville. He added that he hopes the audit will be completed in approximately two weeks.

This weekend, the MBTA also saw a shutdown of Red Line service between Harvard and JFK/UMass stations “to allow for work on the new signal system,” according to a service alert on their website. Shuttle buses replaced service, lining Mass Ave outside Wigglesworth Hall throughout the day. The shutdown will occur again from March 25 to 26.

A video of the falling panel barely missing a passerby received more than 100,000 views on Twitter.

The incident comes amid increased scrutiny of the MBTA, which has experienced significant problems over the past year, including a worker shortage, service cuts, growing slow zones, a monthlong Orange Line shutdown, and the consequences of its aging infrastructure.

Massachusetts State Senator John F. Keenan ’86 wrote in a Tweet that this incident is just one of many over the last year that have undermined trust in the MBTA.

“Broken doors. Broken escalators. Broken stairs. A train on fire. Tragic deaths. Now this,” Keenan wrote. “How can I keep reassuring people that the T is safe?”

—Staff writer Dylan H. Phan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dylanhieuphan.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.

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