A female CTA operator who had worked “a lot of hours in the last week” may have nodded off as a Blue Line train rolled into the O’Hare station and kept going — onto the platform and up an escalator, a union official said Monday.
“The indications are she may have dozed off,’’ Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local, said at a news conference.
The female operator — a one-year CTA veteran — “works a lot of overtime” and had worked “a lot of hours in the last week,’’ Kelly said.
She did not tell him directly that she had nodded off, Kelly said, but media reports said she admitted doing so and she did concede to him that she was “extremely tired.’’
A source told the Chicago Sun-Times that the operator told a supervisor she had dozed off just before a 2:50 a.m. Monday crash at the end of the O’Hare Blue line that sent 32 people to local hospitals, none for serious injuries.
Passengers said the eight-car train erupted into “a panic” as riders were tossed about inside during a wild ride that ended with the first car half-way up a nearby escalator.
“We are lucky that it was at 3 o’clock in the morning and not at 7:30 in the morning,” during the morning rush hour for travelers in and out of the one of the nation’s busiest airports, Kelly said.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene by noon Monday and were to begin their first full day of investigation Tuesday. The operator was among those they were due to interview, Kelly said.
The operator underwent a drug and alcohol test after Monday’s crash, as typically required in such an incident.
“She assured me there would be no problem with her passing,” Kelly said.
Tim DePaepe, an NTSB investigator, said investigators will try to determine whether the operator had any medical issues and what her work schedule was like in the last four to seven days.
Kelly said she had gotten off work around 2 or 2:30 a.m. Sunday and reported back to work by 8 p.m. that night.
The NTSB will try to determine, among other things, if the signal system was operating properly, whether the motorwoman responded properly, and whether the brakes were working properly.
The NTSB was gathering videos from an “outward-facing” video camera on the front end of the train, as well as from station cameras, DePaepe said.
The train’s camera, combined with the track’s signal system, should help investigators figure out how fast the train was going, DePaepe said.
A CTA spokesman had said earlier Monday that the train was “apparently traveling at a higher rate of speed than a train would be” while pulling into the station.
However, Kelly said both the towerman and a supervisor at the Blue Line station who watched the train come into the last station said it was moving at a normal rate of speed, which would explain why automatic train controls did not kick in to stop the train.
He said his speculation was that the operator was “extremely tired” right at the point she was supposed to stop the train, so instead of braking, the train kept going past passengers on the platform and plowed into the bumping post at the end of the tracks.
The bumping post should have stopped the train, Kelly said, but instead he speculated that it “leaned forward” and “became a catapult,’’ vaulting the train over the platform and up the escalator.
In addition, the thrust of the impact with the bumping post may have forced the operator’s hand forward on the “dead man’s” control, into the position of accelerate, Kelly said. That would have given the train an even bigger surge up the escalator.
Afterwards, the operator was “very distraught” and “shaken by this.’’ She was later treated for leg injuries at a local hospital and released.
“The biggest problem we have on the job is complacency,” Kelly said. “You go years and years with nothing happening and then the perfect storm comes. From what I seen this morning, this looks like the perfect storm.’’
Staying awake and alert in the wee hours of the morning while piloting a CTA train can be a challenging task, veterans say.
“Sometimes the rail it hypnotizes you,” said Michael Powell, a former CTA Red Line operator who retired a few months ago after 36 years on the job. “You’re isolated, you can’t talk to anyone, you do whatever you can to stay alert and fresh.”
For Powell, that meant occasionally bringing a can of soda, a glazed doughnut or a cup of coffee onto the train — despite a ban on food and beverages in the operator’s cab, he said.
But the caffeine and sugar aren’t surefire. Powell knows firsthand. He momentarily nodded off while at the controls of a Red Line train in the early 1990s. The train barrelled past one stop before he regained his faculties.
“Knock on wood, I’m glad I didn’t hurt anyone,” said Powell, who was disciplined for the slip-up. “I did as good a job I could.”
Powell said he’d also talk to himself or stick his head out the window to stay alert.
“It’s like a shower, stick your head out, get some air, clear your mind. . . . It’s a stressful job, but that’s what it calls for, to stay alert and stay on your toes. It’s also a human job. And a very responsible job.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman, Stefano Esposito