TSA officer on train's driver: 'She should have been fired'
As a Transportation Security Administration officer, Milka Overton's job is to keep people safe. Yet on her way to work Monday, Overton found herself in danger aboard the CTA Blue Line train that crashed at O'Hare -- and she questions how the operator fell asleep at the wheel given that she had dozed off at work before.
"The very first time, she should have been fired or let go because you literally have people's lives in your hands," said Overton, who suffered an arm and shoulder injury when the train jumped the platform onto an escalator at 2:50 a.m. Monday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ted Turpin confirmed at a Wednesday briefing the operator "did admit she dozed off prior to entering the station. She did not wake again until the train hit most of the end of the bumper."
The CTA employee had nodded off before in February and was admonished, Turpin said.
CTA officials came out with a slightly different version of events, stating the operator told a supervisor "she closed her eyes for a moment ... but did not indicate she 'dozed off'" on Feb. 1. The employee received a written warning, the CTA stated.
The CTA also announced that it could reopen the O'Hare stop this weekend. It's been closed since the accident, which injured 32 people. No one was on the escalator at the time the head car hit.
Overton, a single mother, watched from the third car with growing fear as the train kept speeding through the tunnel and the operator didn't move. "All I could do is hold on and brace myself," she recalled in an interview at her Chicago home.
The head car bounced onto the escalator. Overton fell and "heard something snap."
"There was a big boom, the lights went out and I couldn't get up," Overton said. "People were saying, 'Oh my God ... Jesus.' At first I thought the train was on fire."
Two days later, Overton said she suffers "excruciating" pain when she moves her right shoulder and arm. She can't bathe on her own, get dressed or lift her 4-year-old son, Malik.
The little boy who loves trains "doesn't understand," Overton said. "I don't want him to be afraid. I tell him, 'I'm just hurting. ... I'll be all right.'"
Overton and another passenger, Niakesha Thomas, have filed lawsuits in Cook County circuit court accusing the CTA of negligence.
NTSB investigators said the train operator was hired in April 2013 and qualified to run trains in January. When the collision occurred, she had 60 days' experience driving trains, Turpin said.
Recently but before the accident, the employee overslept and called in late for work, he noted. A union official for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 stated Monday that the employee had worked a lot of overtime.
The CTA indicated that the operator had been off work 18 hours before starting her shift at 8:40 p.m. Sunday. Her status is injured on duty, and one possible repercussion of the crash is her discharge, pending the investigation's completion, officials said.
NTSB investigators said the train was traveling at 25 mph as it neared the O'Hare terminus. The CTA announced it will reduce speeds from 25 mph to 15 mph at the entrance to the O'Hare stop. The agency will also move back "trip switches," levers that can slow and stop trains traveling above speed limits, so that they interact with trains earlier.
The NTSB was expected to release the train cars to the CTA Wednesday. Equipment damage was estimated at $6 million.
The CTA will update riders about service restoration at the O'Hare station later this week. In the interim, shuttles are running between O'Hare and Rosemont every five to six minutes.
Overton said this is her second shock on the Blue Line in just a few months. She was on the train in early January when a fire broke out underneath a car near Rosemont. Still, she has no choice other than to take public transit when she returns to work.
"I'm petrified," Overton said. "All I can do is pray."