Truth of the Matter

No puns this time, no gimmicks. The tragedy that ended with the death of two women just before midnight on April 24 is still too fresh and too horrifying as more details are released.

No puns this time, no gimmicks. The tragedy that ended with the death of two women just before midnight on April 24 is still too fresh and too horrifying as more details are released. Spokespersons and officials within TriMet are offering murky facts, but a picture of what happened that night is beginning to form, and TriMet is in trouble.

A group of five family members and friends left Harvey’s Comedy Club in northwest Portland around midnight and began to walk towards their car, just one block away. The streets were busy as dozens of other Harvey’s patrons poured out of the club.

At this same moment, TriMet No. 9 bus driver, Sandi L. Day, dropped off a passenger at the corner of Northwest Glisan and Broadway. She turned left to drive down Broadway and plowed into the group of five, killing Jenee Hammel and Daniellle Sale and seriously injuring Robert E. Gittings. The three were pinned under the bus in full view of 30 or more eyewitnesses and the two injured, but alive, members of their party. The facts are still being evaluated, but here’s what we do know.

Day had a green light and the pedestrians had a walk signal. That’s the one fact that is certain. Every other detail has a conflicting report that raises more questions. TriMet initially denied that there was anyone on the bus. But witnesses and a security camera show a man exiting seconds before the accident. One of TriMet’s spokespersons maintained that the bus was empty at the time of the accident and that she didn’t find out about the other rider until Thursday. But TriMet officials said they were aware of the mystery rider from Day’s initial report. The entire accident was also caught on tape by an onboard camera, but the footage still remains in police possession during the investigation.

The stop where the man exited isn’t on the No. 9 route. It serves Line 17. This raises a whole host of questions. Day was definitely driving an out-of-service bus. There are reports that she was ending her shift and going back to the garage before going home. But Becki Witt, another TriMet spokeswoman, said that Day was coming off a break and was on her way to start a new trip. Which was it? Was Day working a double shift? If so, fatigue could be a factor and the recent budget and personnel cuts would have to be scrutinized.

Police also say that if the reports are true, Day made an illegal left turn. I went to the corner of Northwest Glisan and Broadway to check, but anyone can use Google maps and see what I’m talking about. The bus stop is on the far-right side of a two-lane, one-way street. It is also right at the corner of the intersection, obviously meant for a bus going straight across Broadway. Day had to have made an extremely sharp turn across two lanes of traffic to hit the victims. Police say that it constitutes an illegal turn. Day could have been checking her left for any traffic in the lane she cut across, or down Broadway for any cars she would cut off. Whatever happened, she clearly wasn’t looking forward or she would have seen the five pedestrians. She must have also been going fairly fast as one of the victims was trapped under the rear wheel of the 17-ton bus.

Day’s union boss, Jonathan Hunt of the Amalgamated Transit Union 757, told The Oregonian that Day still seems in shock and is offering conflicting reports on the details of the accident. Hunt himself offers a conflicting report regarding the safety of the bus model Day was driving, indicating that it was a new series of bus with untested blind spots. TriMet officials disagreed, stating that the bus was in operation since 2001.

TriMet claims that it has been involved in 29 fatal accidents involving a bus, not including the two deaths on April 24. The latest fatality occurred in February 2008 when a driver killed a 15 year-old biker on Southwest Farmington. It’s not a perfect record, but TriMet is far from the worst. Last year, Transportation for America, a transit think tank, named Portland one of the top ten safest cities for pedestrians. The driver, Sandi Day, has been with TriMet since 2007 and had a spotless driving record and recently won a commendation.

It’s hard to say what really happened that night as conflicting reports are released. What is clear is that this was a terrible accident that both parties will be dealing with for the rest of their lives. My prayers go out to both the survivors and driver.