Driver in MTA crash dozed

Documents also say he had been taking strong pain medicine

Underwent rehab in 1994

Before cocaine report, Epps was fired for not disclosing prescription

February 25, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The driver of the light rail train that crashed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport Feb. 13, who tested positive for cocaine, was taking a powerful painkiller, had had problems with drugs before and was seen falling asleep at the controls.

According to documents obtained by The Sun, Sam Epps, the driver, told investigators he was taking oxycodone -- a pain reliever that can cause drowsiness, blurred vision and an out-of-body feeling. The medication had been prescribed by his dentist after he had had four teeth pulled.

Highly placed state government sources, who declined to be identified, said Epps, 53, a 25-year transit veteran, also tested positive for cocaine during a random drug check in 1994, completed an employee rehabilitation program and was returned to his job.

Anthony Brown, a spokesman for the Mass Transit Administration, which operates the light rail line, said he could not confirm the previous cocaine test because it was part of personnel records that are private, but would not deny it. Efforts to reach Epps were unsuccessful.

At least two witnesses told MTA investigators they saw Epps fall asleep during the trip from Penn Station in Baltimore to the airport in Linthicum, according to the documents.

Epps, of the 3900 block of Forest Park Ave. in Baltimore, 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 it failed to stop at the station near the international wing at the airport. The train broke through a barrier and slammed into a large, yellow bumper about 2: 30 p.m. The front of the car rode up over the bumper, and the train was derailed.

Linda G. Thorne, 36, who was riding in the front of the train, told MTA police that it "seemed the operator fell asleep" just before the train crashed, according to the documents.

Vernon Wright, a passenger who said he had a clear view of the front operator's cabin, told police that he thought something was wrong with the operator before the crash.

He said the train stopped at the North Linthicum station to allow a northbound train to clear the tracks. But after the northbound train passed and the signal turned green, the operator sat for 10 to 15 seconds, shook his head and body, then started the train.

Wright and other witnesses said they saw Epps push open the cabin door after the crash and get off the train without saying anything to the passengers.

Operator's account

Investigators found Epps in the rear operator's cabin smoking a cigarette, according to the documents. He told police he had taken a Tylenol 3 with codeine and a red and white capsule later identified as oxycodone.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators found two oxycodone capsules on the floor of the front operator's cabin and a white tablet with a three on it in the operator's seat, according to the documents.

Epps told another MTA investigator that he was stopped in the airport station and getting out of his seat when "everything" happened, according to the documents.

He said he believes he was knocked unconscious, but that's all he can remember of the incident, the documents said.

`Relatively severe pain'

Oxycodone is a narcotic generally prescribed in cases of "relatively severe pain," according to Dr. George Bigelow, a psychiatrist who works in substance abuse treatment programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Depending on the dosage and the patient's tolerance, it could cause a patient to nod off, he said. The standard dosage is five to 10 milligrams, but it is not clear how much Epps had taken.

Oxycodone would take the edginess off a cocaine high and lead to a more euphoric feeling, he said.

Under MTA policy, an employee in a "safety sensitive position," such as a train operator or maintenance engineer, is required to tell a supervisor if he is taking prescription medication that would inhibit his ability to operate heavy equipment, and the supervisor decides whether to allow the employee to work.

MTA Administrator Ronald L. Freeland said yesterday that Epps was fired Feb. 17 because he did not tell his supervisor about the oxycodone.

Random drug tests

MTA officials said they didn't find out Epps tested positive for cocaine after the crash until the day after they fired him.

Under MTA's drug policy, all employees in safety sensitive positions -- about 2,300 of the 3,000 employees -- are subject to random drug tests on two hours' notice.

Over the past year, the administration conducted 2,000 tests. Ten came back positive, and those employees are in some phase of the rehabilitation program, Brown said.

John D. Porcari, the state transportation secretary, promised yesterday a "top-to-bottom review" of the MTA's drug policies.

He said he would develop a "series of recommendations designed to strengthen our operations within 30 days."

Sun staff writers Rafael Alvarez and Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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