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Are We Feeling Safe Yet? Falling Utility Box at Harvard Station Contained Forgotten Homeland Security Surveillance Equipment

A blurry security camera image of the Harvard Red Line station platform. About half a dozen passengers are waiting there, some standing near the tracks, some sitting on benches along the wall, and a large puddle in the middle of the platform is marked by a large orange construction cone.

A still image from a security camera video shows the moment when a utility box fell from the ceiling of the Harvard Red Line station and struck a waiting passenger on Monday, May 1, 2023. Courtesy of the MBTA.

A falling metal utility box that injured an MBTA rider on Monday "served no purpose" and was originally installed in 2011 as part of a joint program between MIT and the Department of Homeland Security.

On Monday evening, after a day of heavy rain, the MBTA reported that a utility box that had been strapped to a column near the ceiling of the Harvard Red Line station platform fell and struck a waiting passenger. The victim was taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.

The MBTA's new General Manager, Phillip Eng, reportedly came to the station later to assess the damage, and ordered MBTA staff to inspect all stations across the system on Tuesday to identify if there were any additional risks to riders.

"The incident at Harvard Square Station Monday was a stark reminder of the challenge at hand, but it is important for the public to know that delivering safe, reliable, and appropriate service is paramount and the MBTA is fully committed to ensuring that we do just that," said Eng in a press statement. "Our team took immediate action to inspect every station to ensure there were not additional risks to riders. When I accepted this position, I fully understood the challenges and responsibility, but I remain confident that we will be successful."

In response to an inquiry from StreetsblogMASS, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo wrote via email Wednesday morning that those station inspections had been completed, and asserted that the Harvard incident was an isolated case.

"The box that became dislodged was part of a 2011 pilot program led by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and funded by the Department of Homeland Security, to house sensors capable of detecting and identifying biological agents," wrote Pesaturo.

Similar equipment had also been installed at Harvard, Porter, and Davis Red Line stations.

"The boxes have served no purpose since the pilot program ended in 2013," wrote Pesaturo. "MBTA General Manager Phil Eng has directed personnel to begin the process of removing the remaining thirteen boxes at all three stations."

There are no known incidents of "biological agents" harming subway passengers anywhere in the U.S.; however, in the past two years, there have been dozens of injuries and two deaths in or near MBTA stations that can be blamed on broken stairs, failing escalators, or malfunctioning trains.

Pesaturo added that the cause of the corrosion that caused the metal straps to snap remains under investigation, but video of the incident shows a large puddle of water on the platform nearby, suggesting that there was a leak in the station's ceiling:

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