CTA operator awoke ‘when she hit,’ dozed off before, NTSB says

Written By BY STEFANO ESPOSITO AND ROSALIND ROSSI Staff Reporters Posted: 03/27/2014, 04:29pm
Array Caution tape hangs near the CTA Blue Line's O'Hare Airport station in Chicago on Wednesday, March, 26, 2014. | Tim Boyle/For Sun-Times Media

A CTA train operator admitted she nodded off before a Blue Line train crashed into an escalator at O’Hare International Airport this week — and also had “dozed off” at the controls just last month, missing a station in the process, a federal investigator said Wednesday.

But Chicago Transit Authority officials said the operator admitted to them that she had merely “closed her eyes for a moment” on Feb. 1 — long enough to overshoot a station by one car and prevent any passengers from disembarking. She did not indicate to the CTA that she “dozed off” in February, the CTA said.

“If she had indeed dozed off, we would have pursued stronger discipline,’’ CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

She received a “written warning in accordance with union work agreements’’ at that time for “not properly stopping at a station,” the CTA said in an emailed statement.

However, an NTSB spokesman said investigator Ted Turpin “was very comfortable” with his statement during a news conference Wednesday that she had admitted that she had “dozed off” at the controls in February.

As a fourth negligence lawsuit was filed against the CTA on Wednesday, CTA workers began chopping up the wayward train in hopes of re-opening the O’Hare station to passengers by this weekend. The damage caused at the last stop on the CTA’s Blue Line was estimated at $6 million.

In addition, the CTA announced it was taking some new safety steps at the station, the scene of the crash at 2:50 a.m. Monday that sent 32 people to local hospitals.

As a “precautionary measure,’’ the CTA said, it is lowering the speed limit of trains entering the O’Hare station from 25 mph — the speed at which the train was traveling — to 15 mph. In addition, trip switches that are supposed to stop a train from traveling above that speed will be moved farther back on the track so they engage earlier, the CTA said.

The operator during Monday’s crash had been hired by the CTA in April 2013 but was qualified as a motorman in January, Turpin said.

She was an “extra board’’ employee, Turpin said, meaning that she called in to find out when she could fill in for vacationing or ill employees. Extra boards can work different shifts during their 40-hour week, as long as they have eight hours off between them.

During a Tuesday interview with NTSB officials, the woman said she could not recall if she had her hand on the spring-loaded control handle at the time her train rolled into the station, barrelled over a bumping post, vaulted out of the track bed and kept going — right up some stairs and escalators leading to one of the busiest airports in the world.

The train did trip an “automatic stop” 41 feet before the end of the track, Turpin said, but it kept moving nevertheless.

Turpin said the operator “admitted she dozed off prior to entering the [OHare] station” and “woke up when she hit close to the end of the bumper.’’

Asked about her work history, the operator told NTSB investigators that “recently, prior to this accident, [the operator] stated that she’d overslept and was late for work,’’ and that “she dozed off and passed a station” in February, Turpin said.

The Feb. 1 incident occurred just before 6:30 p.m. at the Belmont Blue Line station, CTA officials said Wednesday.

The operator is on “injured on duty” status. The range of discipline for her second “safety violation” includes discharge, CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said.

Also Wednesday, Milka Overton, 26, a Transportation Security Administration employee at O’Hare, became the fourth Blue Line passenger to file suit against the CTA, alleging negligence in Monday’s crash.

Overton’s attorney, Bridget Duignan of the Latherow Law Office, said Overton also was a passenger in another Blue Line train that caught fire in 2006. Her left arm is now in a sling from Monday’s incident, Duignan said.

Duignan said a mere written warning seemed an inappropriate penalty for the February incident that occurred only about a month after the operator became qualified as a motorman.

Whether her eyes were merely “closed” in February or she dozed off, “you’re still not paying attention and you’re carrying passengers,’’ Duignan said. “How do you miss a station closing your eyes for a moment?”

Matt Jenkins, an attorney for an O’Hare security officer who filed suit Tuesday, said it “defies common sense and logic” that a rookie who had piloted a train with her eyes closed previously and passed a stop was allowed to work an overnight shift and take passengers to one of the busiest airports in the world.

“This incident should serve as the poster child for cultural change within the CTA,’’ said Jenkins, an attorney with Corboy and Demetrio.

A video that surfaced on YouTube and appears to show the Blue Line train jumping out of the train bed and crashing into an escalator and up stairs indicates more than a dozing operator may have contributed to the crash, Jenkins said.

In the video, a man wheeling his suitcase appears to be talking to a police officer near the top of the escalator as the train can be seen in the distance barrelling toward them. The two men appear to hear the initial crash and race out of the way as the train overshoots the end of the platform and heads up the escalator and stairs.

“You don’t need to be an attorney or an engineer to apply common sense that you wouldn’t have a train track pointed directly at an escalator at one of the highest volume pedestrian traffic places on earth,’’ Jenkins said.

Both Jenkins and Duigan won protective orders Wednesday to preserve all video, camera, maintenance and work history records in the case.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly was unavailable Wednesday, but the CTA noted in an emailed statement that the O’Hare Station was built in 1984 with the existing configuration and has handled nearly 4 million train trips since then “without incident.’’

Contributing: Jon Seidel

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