MTA driver fired for drug use

Operator in crash of train at BWI admits using prescription

Tests positive for cocaine

Officials don't know extent of impairment in Feb. 13 accident

February 24, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The driver of the light rail train that crashed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Feb. 13 tested positive for cocaine after the wreck.

Mass Transit Administration officials said the driver -- a 25-year transit veteran identified as Sam Epps -- was fired Feb. 17 after he admitted being on prescription drugs when his train overran a station platform at BWI near Linthicum and hit a concrete-and-steel barrier.

The next day, officials said, results of a mandatory toxicology test conducted at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore showed cocaine in Epps' system.

Officials could not say last night to what extent, if any, Epps was impaired by cocaine when his train hit the barrier.

Transportation officials could not say last night how much time elapsed between the crash and when Epps was tested for drugs but said the tests were done the same day.

Epps, whose age and address could not be learned last night, was injured in the accident along with 22 passengers. Most suffered minor injuries, including fractures and cuts.

The one-car train was traveling between 22 mph and 24 mph -- about 10 mph faster than normal -- when the crash occurred about 2: 30 p.m. Ronald L.Freeland, the MTA administrator, said last night that he knew of no charges filed against Epps by police.

"On Thursday, I met with key staff members and said that Epps may have inappropriately used prescription drugs while on duty," Freeland said.

"At that point I decided to terminate him to preserve the interest of the public. The next day, the toxicology tests came back positive for cocaine."

Freeland said he did not know which prescription drugs Epps was using at the time of the crash. The MTA requires drivers to notify supervisors if they are taking medication of any kind.

Epps' failure to do so was the cause of his firing, according to officials, who said he was hired in 1974 to drive buses and transferred to light rail seven years ago.

Jack Cahalan, Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman, said last night that there was "no compelling reason" to publicize Epps' firing for drug use because "it was a personnel matter, and it was treated as a personnel matter."

MTA spokesman Anthony Brown said the information was released yesterday after media inquiries.

"We just did not make that information public," said Brown. "It was available if someone had asked, but [until yesterday] no one asked."

Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said last night that investigators have yet to find any mechanical problems that might have caused the accident.

"They've reported no evidence of a pre-existing mechanical problem," Lopatkiewicz said. "They've found no malfunction in the brakes and no evidence of heavy braking."

The NTSB investigation will continue for at least several more months, Lopatkiewicz said.

Freeland said he has launched a review of MTA policies in the wake of the crash to "eliminate any possible risk to the public" but added that he would not make any changes public while the NTSB investigation continued.

Epps is a member of Local 1300 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, in the 100 block of E. 25th St. Local President Ennis Fonder could not be reached for comment last night.

Freeland said Epps had been randomly tested for drugs and alcohol in the past, which is routine for "safety sensitive employees" in the transportation industry. Freeland did not know the results of prior tests.

The MTA conducts random drug tests of employees who operate buses and rail vehicles and also tests them when it has reasonable suspicion of substance use, as required by federal law. MTA must take severe action against employees who endanger passengers.

The MTA's policy requires employees to check brakes and signals daily before trains go onto the track.

Previous light rail accidents have involved the vehicles hitting pedestrians at crossings.

The crash involving Epps occurred when the train that started from Baltimore's Penn Station failed to stop at the barrier at the airport's international wing, the end of the line.

At the time, witness Charles Lynch III of Pasadena said: "It was a huge crash, a huge boom."

Lynch had taken a commuter train to BWI with his 6-year-old son for a Tiger Scout tour of the airport and was waiting at the platform for a return trip when the accident happened.

In January 1987, 16 people were killed when a high-speed Amtrak passenger train collided with a string of Conrail locomotives in Chase. The Conrail engineer, Ricky L. Gates, admitted being high on marijuana at the time.

Gates received a five-year sentence for manslaughter.

Sun staff writers Richard Irwin and Marcia Myers and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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