By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
First Transit President Mike Murray and First Transit Regional Vice President Rick Pulido, who is based in San Antonio, also declined interview requests.
First Transit successfully blocked our attempts to secure information regarding its drivers, policies and accident investigations. "As a private corporation, First Transit is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act," wrote First Transit associate general counsel Michael Petrucci in a letter to the Press dated November 1, 2005. "If necessary," Petrucci wrote in a separate letter a month later, "First Transit will initiate legal proceedings to protect its interests."
The Attorney General of Texas's Open Records Division upheld Petrucci's argument, though First Transit performs the functions of a governmental body and is funded by taxpayer dollars.
Metro buses, regardless of who is driving them, are proven equal-opportunity killers. They do not discriminate by race, ethnicity, age or education. Recent victims include African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and whites; a nine-year-old girl and a 71-year-old man; a construction worker and an attorney; pedestrians, car passengers and even Metro's own employees.
During the last ten years Metro buses have killed 27 people, and one-third of those accidents were caused by the bus drivers. Dozens more crashes have resulted in serious injuries. As recently as last Thursday, another accident occurred when a Metro bus struck 67-year-old Jennive Smalls while she was in a crosswalk at the intersection of Fannin and Congress. Smalls was treated at Memorial Hermann Hospital for injuries to her back, hip, neck and leg, and was released later that day.
Many survivors of Metro bus accidents never fully recover from their injuries. Many undergo years of physical and psychological therapy. Making matters worse, financial settlements provided by Metro frequently fall far short of covering medical expenses, causing families to drown in debt. Several victims complained that Metro let years pass before resolving claims.
During our investigation, the Press discovered revealing internal memos and e-mails that offer an insider's look into how Metro regards and compensates its victims.
Many of the survivors and families who appear in this article initially declined to be interviewed because they did not want to relive their tragic experiences. All stepped forward to tell their stories, united by a single goal: that Metro stop hiding behind misleading statistics and start increasing safety measures through better driver training and more complete oversight of its operations to ensure that its buses never kill again.
"There's no excuse," Allen says. "Metro drivers are up off the ground. They have huge windows. There are no blind spots on a bus."
Jeffrey Yu-Chang Kao, a 31-year-old patent attorney for Shell Oil Company, stood downtown at the corner of Walker and Smith waiting for the pedestrian signal to change to "Walk."
Alroyce Sheppard, a 20-year veteran Metro driver, sat idling at a red light inside his empty bus, waiting for a left-turn arrow to enter the intersection.
Both got their green lights and proceeded.
Kao was halfway through the crosswalk when the turning bus knocked him and spun him 15 feet through the air.
"You could hear the grunt that was forced out on impact," a witness told police. "When his head hit the concrete it was like the sound billiard balls make when you break them."
Kao landed at the bus's rear right tire, sprung to his feet, fell to his knees and rolled onto his back. Blood oozed from his ears.
Teeth clenched, eyes shut, breathing noisily through his nose and mouth, he was strapped to a stretcher and lifted into an ambulance.
Loan-Anh Tran Kao, eight and a half months pregnant, was in her kitchen in Meyerland when she got the news. She responded defiantly.
"No," she insisted. "Jeff's about to be home right now. The kids are in their pajamas. Dinner is waiting."
Loan-Anh Kao arrived at Memorial Hermann Hospital with her two small children in tow. The kids slept on air mattresses in a waiting room outside the intensive care unit while she spent the night pacing the hallways.
Though her husband was unconscious, Loan-Anh didn't believe the injury was all that serious.
"You couldn't tell he was hurt," she says. "He wasn't bruised or bloody."
Jeffrey Kao had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Thirty-nine hours after being hit, he died.
Sheppard didn't have much to say about the November 3, 2003, accident. He told police: "I was at the light. The light changed. There was no one in the crosswalk. I made the turn and there he was."
Witnesses were outraged that the driver never exited the bus to offer help. He just sat there, they said, apparently filling out an accident report until police arrived.
A few weeks later two police officers rang the bell at Sheppard's westside home and served him an arrest warrant for criminally negligent homicide, a felony. He faced a maximum ten-year prison sentence. "It was only an accident," said Sheppard, his seven-year-old daughter at his side.
A year later Sheppard was found guilty and sentenced to three days in jail and two years' probation.
Metro terminated Sheppard long before his case went to trial.
Reached by phone, Sheppard wanted to share his story with the Press. But his attorneys advised against it since he is still on probation.
About two-three months ago I was standing on the corner of William St and Sterrett St in downtown Houston. A bus came down William St. and turned right onto Sterrett St. and smashed the back side of a parked car on Sterrett. The bus just kept on going and did not stop. There were passengers on it.
We knew the guy who's car it was and we told him exactly what we had just seen, gave him the bus number and talked to his insurance. Metro denies everything and refused to cooperate, natch.
The situation in this article is of course much more serious, just throwing in my 2 cents on how I've seen Metro operate.