THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Brakes not utilized in train crash, NTSB says

Officials also rule out track flaws as a cause

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Abel and James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 31, 2008

NEWTON - The MBTA operator who died in Wednesday's Green Line crash did not apply the brakes before her trolley slammed into the train ahead at a speed of nearly 40 miles per hour, according to preliminary findings by federal investigators.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board announced yesterday that they have eliminated brake failure and track flaws as reasons for the crash, which left at least seven people injured. They are still reviewing human error, signal error, and environmental factors such as visibility as possible causes.

"We don't see any evidence the brakes were applied before the collision," said Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, at an afternoon news conference in Newton. "So far we have not found anything mechanical."

She said they have not discovered a cellphone as part of their investigation, but are continuing to investigate whether operator Terrese Edmonds was using one at the time of the crash.

"We are very aware that the issue of a cellphone has been raised, and we will chase that down," she said. "Operators are not supposed to use cellphones while operating; they are supposed to use radios."

She said it's possible that investigators from the Middlesex district attorney's office have recovered a phone.

The district attorney's office, which is conducting a separate investigation, declined to comment on whether they have Edmonds's cellphone.

"We're not going to go into specifics," said Corey Welford, a spokesman for the district attorney's office. "It's our responsibility to determine whether crimes were committed. As soon as we make a determination, we'll make our results known."

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been busing commuters around the site, but train service will resume this morning, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. Service will be suspended again tomorrow in the late afternoon and early evening so investigators can run a final test. But trains will be running as normal by the Monday morning com mute, Pesaturo said.

Investigators have been interviewing train operators and dispatchers, Higgins said, but she declined to comment on what they have learned from them.

Higgins said preliminary evidence suggests there were no problems with the signal system, but those findings must be confirmed by physically testing the signals.

The rush-hour crash of two trains on the D branch of the Green Line in Newton threw commuters from their seats and killed Edmonds, 24, of Boston.

Higgins said applying the brakes leaves a trail of sand on the tracks, but no sand was present in this case. She said investigators also found no problems with the tracks.

Based on recording equipment known as "fault loggers" on the two trains, Higgins said the speed of the rear train has been pinpointed at 37 to 38 miles per hour, while the one in front was traveling at 3 to 4 miles per hour. The speed limit on that section of the Green Line is 40 miles per hour.

Pesaturo said recent demolition work to a nearby bridge played no role in the crash. "The bridge work had nothing to do with the signal system in the area of the accident," he said in an e-mail.

Edmonds's relatives said they have heard nothing from investigators.

"We don't have any new information," said Naomi Crumb, her aunt.

She said her family has received Edmonds's clothing but not a cellphone. They plan to hold a funeral on Monday, but Crumb declined to say where.

One of the injured victims on the trolley reunited at Boston Medical Center yesterday with a man who spent about a half-hour holding her hand and keeping her conscious before rescue workers freed her from the wreckage.

Ben Papapietro, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Arizona, was returning to his home in Sudbury from his internship with the Red Sox. He was sitting in the rear car of the packed train when it slammed into the other train.

After the train came to a stop, Papapietro fled with scores of other passengers, fearing the train might explode. But when he heard screaming from the cars, he went back. "It was a matter of how long you could have listened to these people screaming inside the train before you did something," Papapietro said in an interview at MBTA police headquarters. "I guess my breaking point was just sooner than everyone else's."

When he returned to the train, he found Min Perry, 37, a portfolio manager from Wellesley, who was in the seat behind the train driver and had become trapped. She was bleeding profusely and in agony.

"She was screaming, screaming, the worst screams I've ever heard in my life," he said. "It breaks your heart."

With smoke filling the trolley and flames all around, he took his shirt off, urged her to breathe through it, and to squeeze his hand. "I didn't want this lady to die right in front of me," he said. "I'm trying to keep her going, doing everything I can, but at the same time doing nothing, because I can't do anything. It's the most helpless feeling in the world."

When firefighters and paramedics arrived, Papapietro pleaded with them to help Perry. "I looked back and I'm like, 'Hey, I'm just a person riding the train. Someone needs to help this woman.' "

Yesterday, after they met at the hospital, Papapietro was amazed to see how much she had recovered. Perry had cuts and a broken ankle. "If it wasn't for his actions, she may not be around," said Joe Perry, the victim's husband, at the hospital. "It's hard to put into words your appreciation for his actions. You don't meet people of his caliber."

The acting transit police chief, Paul MacMillan, called Papapietro a hero.

"I think we cloud the definition of hero," MacMillan said. "But under any definition, he's a hero."

At yesterday's news conference in Newton, Higgins said investigators interviewed a second crew member aboard the rear train and the dispatcher responsible for both trains. The two-member crew on the train that was hit had not been interviewed, she said.

Investigators planned to reenact the crash this evening or tomorrow. Higgins said the reenactment will allow investigators a chance to "see what the operators of the train would have seen."

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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