By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the Blue Line’s third year of service, the MTA sank $15.2 million into security, saturating the line with Sheriff’s Department deputies, security guards and closed-circuit camera monitoring — nearly $2 million more than it spent on the entire Los Angeles County bus fleet. In February 2003, the Pueblo Bloods from El Pueblo del Rio Housing Projects barricaded the Ghetto Blue and shut down the whole system for a few hours. The Sheriff’s report states, “Several gang-types, estimated at 75-plus, placed large roll-type garbage bins on the tracks and stood upright a large piece (15’x15’) of wrought-iron gate. They became more unruly and chanted vulgarities about the LAPD.” The protest had been organized the day before, when one of their homeboys was shot to death by the LAPD.
Gangs, however, are less of a threat on these tracks than the trains themselves: Of the 66 railway fatalities on the MTA system since transit service began in 1990, 62 have occurred on the Ghetto Blue. Its death toll exceeds by far that of any other light-rail line or system in the United States, accounting for more than 38 percent of all U.S. light-rail fatalities. By contrast, 23 deaths occurred on San Diego’s entire light-rail system in the same time, and it has twice as many track miles as Los Angeles’ does. Among the 19 rail lines nationwide, an average of 8.7 deaths occurred over that same 11 years. Most of the Blue Line deaths have involved pedestrians or automobiles at one of the 101 grade crossings — and especially at ‰ intersections along a 16-mile stretch where the Ghetto Blue rumbles at 55 mph through several densely populated neighborhoods.
On the night of May 6, 1998, Donald White, a 41-year-old mechanic driving his newly bought used tow truck with two passengers, was struck by the Ghetto Blue at the grade crossing at Wilmington Avenue and 115th Street in Watts. White was killed; the two passengers were injured. A total of 30 city firefighters were sent to the scene. One of them described the tow truck as “mangled.”
“I was watching the 10 o’clock news, and around 10:30 they broke in with a special report,” says White’s widow, Cynthia. “They said the Blue Line collided with a tow truck. It looked like his tow truck, so then I woke up my daughter Shawnte and said, ‘A tow truck collided with the MTA . . . almost looked like your daddy’s truck, but it was clean.’ So I prayed that night it wasn’t him.” When he hadn’t come home by the next morning, she drove to his work. “The man at his work ran to me, and I said, ‘Where’s Don?’ He asked if I watched the news. I said yes. ‘Well, that was Don.’
“I used his phone and called Don’s relatives. Then I went to King/Drew Hospital and went to the security office. They asked who I was. I said, ‘I’m his wife.’ They told me to describe him. Then they told me to sit down and a social worker would come out. And right there I knew it was him. I knew he was dead.”
That same morning, a woman was struck and killed by a Blue Line commuter train in South Los Angeles, “just 12 hours after a tow truck and another MTA train collided in the area,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Shawnte White says that it made her father’s death harder that the MTA never notified her; never reached out. Not a letter, not a phone call, not “I’m sorry, what can we do to help?” Nothing. So White’s family decided to take the MTA to court.
The first round of Cynthia White v. City of Los Angeles ended in a mistrial, because, as Cynthia White put it, “The operator faked his breakdown in court.” According to attorney Renée L. Campbell, who represented train passenger Melvin Favors in a related suit against the MTA, train operator Carter Norwood started screaming, “I didn’t mean to do it,” while being questioned by his defense attorney. The judge, in sympathy with the operator and without polling the jury, surprised everyone by declaring a mistrial. Word got back to the Whites that Norwood was seen back on the job the next day. In the second trial, the jury found that the MTA was not negligent. But the trial did, nevertheless, reveal some telling evidence: According to court documents, the MTA failed to train its operators to use and apply the emergency braking system. “We don’t go out there and teach [emergency brakes] because it costs a lot of money,” testified Blue Line director Duane Martin.
“What would people think about that?” asks Cynthia White. “Would they get on the train knowing that the operators don’t know how to use the emergency brakes? In my opinion, [the MTA] just don’t care who they kill.”
MTA spokesman Ed Scannell says that all Blue Line operators are trained to use the emergency brakes. The system offers the operators two emergency braking options. First is a “control stand,” a left-hand lever that controls the speed of the train. If the operator pulls back, the train speeds up; if the lever is pushed forward, the train slows. Pushing the lever all the way forward will cause the train to stop. The other option is for the operator to push a red “mushroom” button on the control board. Both options release air pressure and drop bags of sand, creating sufficient friction to stop the train. But according to Scannell, the emergency brake is used only “when you require the train to be stopped more quickly than your standard braking procedure.”