- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO | The four most seriously injured victims in a weekend light-rail crash were improving Monday, as a union official said the operator of the train had blacked out just before the crash with a parked train.

Two of the victims were in good condition, one was fair and the fourth had been transferred to another hospital for nonmedical reasons, said Rachael Kagan, spokeswoman for San Francisco General Hospital.

A total of 47 people were injured in the crash, including the driver. A total of 15 were seen in the General Hospital emergency room Saturday. Eleven were treated and released.

Attorney Matthew Davis, whose firm is representing two victims, said one client had six broken ribs and the other sustained facial lacerations and a concussion.

Meanwhile, Irwin Lum, president of San Francisco’s transit workers union, told the Associated Press a “medical condition” was to blame for the driver’s loss of consciousness.

Federal investigators reported Sunday that the driver, who has not been named, had turned off the train’s automatic controls moments before the crash.

Mr. Lum said drivers under pressure to keep their trains running on time turn off the controls before entering the West Portal station to speed loading and unloading.

“Basically, it was understood that it was OK based on the fact that passengers were complaining about long waits getting to the platform,” Mr. Lum said.

Judson True, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, responded that said “any suggestion that safety is not the top priority of SFMTA is wrongheaded.”

The agency referred all questions regarding the crash investigation to the National Transportation Safety Board, saying the federal agency was in charge.

“We will do everything we can to ensure that this sort of accident never happens again,” said Nathaniel Ford, executive director of the San Francisco agency.

Ted Turpin of the NTSB said the operator never engaged the emergency brake, and a mechanical inspection of the train that caused the accident has so far not uncovered any problems.

Investigators had not yet interviewed the operator and typically wait until a crash victim’s health has improved before conducting interviews.

Officials said the driver started as a San Francisco bus driver in 1979 and switched to light rail in 2007. The driver had not been involved in any major accidents before Saturday, Mr. Lum said.

A drug test was administered, which is standard procedure for crashes.

Mr. Davis said the trains are equipped with video cameras that should let investigators see if the driver blacked out after switching the train’s controls to manual.

It was the nation’s fourth major rail accident in 10 months.

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