CHICAGO – The operator of a Chicago commuter train that crashed at O'Hare International Airport acknowledged she dozed off before the accident and had also done so last month when she overshot a station platform, a federal investigator said Wednesday.
Before the crash, the operator had been running trains on the nation's second-largest public transportation system for just two months. In Monday's accident, which injured more than 30 people, she woke up only as the eight-car train jolted onto the platform and barreled up an escalator leading into the airport. The accident occurred around 3 a.m., as the driver was nearing the end of her shift. The woman had an erratic work schedule and investigators were looking to see if that played a role in her evident fatigue.
"She did admit that she dozed off prior to entering the station. She did not awake again until the train hit," National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ted Turpin said at a final on-site briefing at the airport. Nearby, workers with electric saws and face shields were cutting up the lead train car, sending bright orange sparks flying, as they prepared to remove the wreckage.
Turpin and other officials interviewed the train operator Tuesday and were investigating her training, scheduling and disciplinary history. He described her as cooperative and "very forthcoming."
The NTSB said the operator told investigators that in February she dozed off on the job and partially missed a station. CTA officials said their records showed the operator said she "closed her eyes for a moment" and only one car passed the station.
"The CTA became aware of that almost immediately and a supervisor admonished her and had a discussion with her," Turpin said, adding that a reprimand was the only step required under the local agency's disciplinary guidelines, which increase in severity after multiple violations.
The operator is on "injured on duty" status, the CTA said, and faces discipline up to and including discharge for the incident Monday, which was her second safety violation.
She told investigators she was not taking any medications. Results from a drug-and-alcohol test had not come back yet.
Investigators were also looking closely at a backup emergency braking system located on the track that was triggered by the train but ultimately failed to stop it from plowing onward. It is possible that the triggering mechanism was not located far back enough to stop the train, which entered the station at a normal speed of about 25 mph, Turpin said.
The train was also equipped with a spring-loaded handle designed to engage the brakes if an operator's hand comes off the controls. The operator told investigators she could not remember if she released it but assumed she continued to grip it even as she fell asleep.
Turpin said the operator was an extra-board employee, meaning she filled in to cover shifts for regular employees and her hours varied from one day to the next.
"She would call in the morning or at the end of shift to find out when she would work the next day," he said, adding that she had overslept on one occasion and was late for work.
The union representing the operator has said she was working a lot of overtime recently and was exhausted. The CTA said she had more than the eight-hour off-duty time required before starting her shift.
The crash caused about $6 million worth of damage to equipment. There was no estimate for damage caused to the station. The CTA said it would reduce the speed of trains entering the O'Hare station and move switches meant to stop speeding trains so they engage earlier.
Photos released by the NTSB showed the battered lead car had been thrown at an angle so far up the escalator that someone could comfortably walk beneath it. The exposed escalator machinery was shredded.
Attorneys for several injured passengers have sued the transit agency, alleging negligence. A CTA spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.