22 hurt in light rail crash at BWI

Operator admits use of prescription drugs

August 16, 2000|By Marcia Myers and Laura Cadiz | Marcia Myers and Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A light rail train slammed into a barrier yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, injuring 22 people - including its driver, who officials say acknowledged taking prescription drugs.

The accident was similar to a crash at the same spot earlier this year.

Passengers told of a lurching ride before being jarred from naps and thrown against poles and seats, and of panic as the front car rose off the tracks - its roof ripping open.

"I'll be honest with you, I thought this was it," said Yvonne Bankston, 36, who was treated for minor cuts and facial injuries at Harbor Hospital Center. "When the debris started coming and it was dark, I didn't know if it was going to blow up or what. All I could think was, `This is it.'"

The train's operator, Dentis Thomas, 48, of Northeast Baltimore, indicated to investigators that he was taking prescription medication, according to a Mass Transit Administration preliminary report. It was not clear whether the medication might have impaired his ability to operate the train.

When asked by investigators what happened, Thomas said: "I don't remember; I blacked out," according to the report. Thomas suffered minor injuries.

Drug and alcohol tests were administered to Thomas, but results are not expected for 72 hours, MTA officials said. The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct its first detailed interview with him today.

Investigators said it wasn't clear how fast the train was going, but that it approached the stop in excess of the normal 10 to 15 mph. It collided with a steel barrier a few feet from the airline terminal doors.

Thomas has worked for the transit agency for 26 years, driving buses until he switched to light rail in March 1994. His only disciplinary action followed a July 7, 1999, accident in the Glen Burnie rail yard. Officials said he failed to operate a switch correctly and derailed a train. No passengers were on board.

In the past year he has been involved in two other accidents. In each case, a vehicle collided with the train and he was not to blame, officials said.

"We should investigate and not rush to judgment," MTA Administrator Ron Freeland said yesterday. "We should make sure the accident is or is not due to operator error."

Thomas, reached at his home last night, declined to comment.

Sam Epps, the train operator in the earlier BWI crash, admitted taking oxycodone, a powerful painkiller. He was fired for failing to inform supervisors. Drug tests after the accident showed cocaine in his system, and he later told federal investigators that he had used the narcotic two days before, according to NTSB documents.

NTSB member John A. Hammerschmidt said last night that the accident at first glance appeared to be a "carbon copy" of the Feb. 13 light rail accident at the BWI stop. Preliminary inspection of the car and tracks shows no evidence of emergency braking. A check of the signals showed nothing unusual, he said.

Since the earlier accident, the MTA has "made no significant changes in the way they operate," he said.

We view this as a very serious accident, especially in light of the fact that it's essentially the same accident we investigated Feb. 13," Hammerschmidt said.

Properly designed steel bumpers would keep the train on the track, he said. In both accidents, however, the train derailed, and in yesterday's accident the bumper was dislodged and turned upside-down. Once again, the collision forced the nose of the train into the air, punching a hole in the terminal overhang.

"It's obvious where the bumpers ended up in both accidents, and that's not the way they're designed," he said. "We want to do everything we can to ensure this type of accident does not happen a third time."

After the first accident, the MTA ordered new bumpers, which are to arrive in about four months, said Brown, the agency's spokesman.

After yesterday's accident, passengers complained of jammed doors and windows blocking their escape - and said the train had been operating erratically since at least Linthicum, two stops before the crash.

"It was jerking before we got to the station," said Bryan A. Taylor, who was sitting in the second of the train's two cars.

"In the back of my mind, I was thinking it was going to stop," said Frederick Knuckles, 32, of East Baltimore, who rides the rail line daily to his Hertz car rental job and was standing at the first car's middle door. I'm expecting the car to come to a soft stop."

Instead, he was jolted off his feet. Within seconds, he said, there was panic. "The top of the car was torn up, and debris and metal were falling down into the car. There was confusion and mass hysteria."

Several injured riders complained that doors would not open, adding to their fright as they felt trapped on the train - which was mostly carrying workers on their way from Baltimore to jobs at and around the airport. Knuckles said only one person in the front car was trying to catch a flight.

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