By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
It was 11:30 p.m., exactly midway through the night shift at the garage, and time for Myesha Taylor Thomas to return to work cleaning buses. Thomas crumpled the box of Red Hots she had bought in the break room and tucked them into her navy blue uniform with the word "Metro" stitched across the chest.
Walking with Thomas was her close friend and co-worker Liza Babineaux. Their knee-high, thick-soled rubber boots clacked against the concrete floors covered in oil, grease and grime. Together they crossed through an access door and into a service lane where buses are fueled.
At that moment, 21-year-old fellow maintenance worker Larry Lee Draper Jr. was pulling a standard 40-foot-long passenger bus into the parking bay. Draper steered the bus forward while glancing over his right shoulder to align a gas pump with the fuel door.
Draper heard a thud and felt the bus go over a small hump.
A woman screamed.
He went to slam on the brakes, but instead gunned the accelerator.
The bus had knocked Thomas sideways and barreled over her. It simultaneously struck Babineaux and bus fueler Clarence Santee Jr. Both employees were hit at the knee, lifted off their feet and slammed into a parked bus.
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" cried Babineaux, pinned between the pair of 13-ton buses.
Draper's arms were flailing. He was so panicked his hands weren't even on the wheel.
"Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes!" yelled Santee, banging on the windshield with his fists.
Draper rammed the parked bus forward several feet and skidded, hurling Babineaux and Santee against a wall. Lying on his side, fighting to stay conscious, Santee could see the face of 32-year-old Myesha Taylor Thomas.
Deep cuts crossed her dirt-covered forehead, nose and upper lip. Her right eye was filled with blood.
One of Thomas's work boots was knocked off, revealing pink-polished toenails, a point of order on an otherwise ravaged body.
A wide tread mark stretched across Thomas's lower back. Her ribs and sternum were cracked, her organs squashed, her spinal cord ripped from its canal.
"I saw Myesha for a split second," Santee recalls, "then I didn't see her."
Thomas, a mother of two small children, was dead at the scene. Police dragged her corpse from beneath the left front bumper. Her pockets contained nine dollars and five cents -- a couple of bucks less than her hourly wage -- and a dampened box of candy.
Today 34-year-old Santee and 24-year-old Babineaux are both wheelchair-bound and may never walk again. Babineaux suffered a broken leg and pelvis and severe internal injuries. Santee's right knee was crushed, his leg completely skinned from the top of his thigh to the middle of his calf. He has undergone more than a dozen leg surgeries and nearly had his right leg amputated.
Metro did not offer a lump-sum settlement to any of the victims or their families. Santee and Babineaux receive benefits based on the Texas Workers' Compensation Act, which entitles them to just 70 percent of their roughly $25,000 annual salaries. Thomas's two children will split a weekly compensation benefit of $400.65 until they are 18 years old.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County conducted an internal investigation of the August 3, 2005, industrial accident at its 5700 Polk Street garage.
Draper told police that his co-workers were "in a blind spot" and was promptly fired from his $16,224-a-year position. But investigators didn't solely fault the driver for the fatal accident. Metro's own failed policies and lack of oversight shouldered most of the blame.
The primary causes of the accident, according to Metro investigators, were the "too cumbersome" rubber boots worn by cleaners when driving buses, and the "position and swing of the door," which "hindered the visibility of pedestrians and operator."
Investigators also found as follows: Safety meetings and committees for employees were not occurring; written processes for fueling and washing buses were not being followed; and employees and supervisors were not trained in hazard identification and resolution.
Worst of all: Draper, who had been hired just seven weeks before the accident, had no commercial driver's license. Metro investigators report -- and Draper confirmed in a brief phone interview -- that he received no formal training from Metro on how to operate a bus. Draper was trained almost exclusively by other unlicensed maintenance workers.
The Houston Press has spent the last four months independently investigating Metro's bus operations. It took an appeal to the Attorney General of Texas's Open Records Division to open up Metro's records. In examining thousands of public documents and interviewing more than a dozen recent survivors of Metro accidents and families whose relatives were killed by Metro buses, the Press found repeated instances of the following:
• Metro rejecting the safety recommendations of its own investigators
• Metro offering bus accident victims much lower amounts to settle cases than what was recommended by its own claims committee
• Metro hounding victims to settle their cases, even approaching them to sign settlement forms as they lay in their hospital beds
• Metro not offering any form of apology to victims even when their bus drivers caused the accidents
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