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CTA train operator tells NTSB she turned off heat, felt sleepy before crash at O’Hare

The CTA operator who dozed off before crashing a train at O’Hare International Airport last year had turned off the train’s heat several stops earlier because she was getting tired, federal officials revealed Thursday in a hefty release of investigative documents.

The National Transportation Safety Board documents include an 81-page interview with the operator, Brittney Haywood, who said she remembered lowering the speed to 35 mph and seeing a signal to stop. Then she dozed off and woke up only when the train blew past the last stop, vaulted out of the track bed and crashed into an escalator and stairs leading to the airport.

“I was operating normal up until I reached O’Hare Terminal. I was tired. I didn’t get any sleep the day before and I might — I have — I became sleepy and I nodded off into the terminal of O’Hare,” Haywood told a room full of investigators the day after the crash.

Haywood also admitted it was “sometimes” difficult to stay awake during overnight shifts and often felt sleepy between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.

Just three stops before reaching the O’Hare station, Haywood turned off the heat to the train at the Harlem station because it was making her tired: “The only thing was the heat. I kept turning the heat off at Harlem because that became, you know, a distraction to me. . . . I believe it took a toll on my body as far as making me tired,” Haywood said.

The crash at 2:50 a.m. March 24, 2014, sparked several lawsuits, caused $9.1 million in damage and sent 32 passengers to hospitals. Two weeks later, the CTA announced they had fired Haywood.

Haywood’s interview revealed she took overtime shifts frequently. “Well, I just always, since I was young, love to work. My first job I received at 14, so I just always been a hard worker; I love work,” Haywood told investigators after the crash.

Haywood was hired in April 2013 as a flagger. She finished operator training in January 2014. She had just 60 days of experience when the crash happened.

The NTSB documents include multiple safety reports, personnel interviews and Haywood’s work schedule.

Haywood worked 11 days in a row a month before the crash, and nearly 60 hours the week before the crash, the NTSB noted. That included a Feb. 1 overnight shift, when she admitted to supervisors that she had nodded off and missed a station.

Investigators asked if she had ever had a “microsleep” while operating the train. She said no but admitted to the Feb. 1 incident.

“I slid out the station, and I was a new operator. I panicked because I slid out. And I just proceeded on normal to the next station,” Haywood said.

Investigators asked her whether being too tired to operate the train would be a good enough excuse to call in sick.

“You can’t say you’re too tired to come in. That would be a ‘miss.’ That’s not a legitimate excuse,” Haywood said.

A preliminary report indicated a stopping mechanism called a “trip” was too close to the end of the track bed to stop the train, which was traveling at 26 mph, just faster than recommended.

The CTA has since reduced the maximum speed coming into the O’Hare station from 25 mph to 15 mph and has moved the trip farther up the track bed of the center tracks.

A final NTSB report will be released at a later date.

NTSB Interview of CTA Train Operator Brittney Haywood