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Life Interrupted

Three months after Jennifer Rodriguez burned to death, Metro awarded First Transit another five-year contract.
Photo courtesy of Roland Rodriguez

This is a sidebar to this week's feature, "Run Over by Metro"

This spring marks the fifth anniversary of when First Transit driver Clifford Wayne Kidd torpedoed a Metro bus into stop-and-go traffic, causing nine-year-old Jennifer Rodriguez to burn to death.

Roland Rodriguez, Jennifer's father, has never granted an interview about the accident. He decided to break his silence to the Houston Press.

It happened on May 7, 2001, a Monday. At about 6:45 a.m. Roland loaded his three kids into a Lincoln Navigator to shuttle them to school.

They entered the HOV lane of U.S. 290 at Pinemont and were cruising at about 60 miles per hour, until they saw a sea of red brake lights up ahead. They slowed to a halt, occasionally rolling forward at about three to five miles per hour.

"We're going to be late," complained J'Net, who was 13 at the time, and seated in the front passenger seat.

"Can you see why everybody is stopped ahead of us?" her father replied.

Before J'Net could answer, Kidd rear-ended the Rodriguez family with his 22-ton double-bus, slamming the SUV into another car and a concrete barrier.

Kidd had a full load of 63 passengers inside. He hit the SUV going 54 miles per hour and never even touched his brake.

Roland Rodriguez immediately saw flames in his rearview mirror. His kids screamed wildly.

The SUV's front and back seats had been compressed together. Unable to open his door, Roland broke out the driver's-side window with his arm.

J'Net didn't want to be the first to leave the burning car. She was scared for her little brother and sister.

"Don't worry, I'll get them out," said her father, grabbing and forcing J'Net out the window.

Roland turned around and saw his 11-year-old son's anguished face. A bone in the boy's thigh had broken and pierced his pant leg. Unable to remove his seat belt, Roland used a pocketknife to cut him loose.

Roland somehow managed to kick out a back window from the front seat. He pulled his son's uninjured leg through the window, and the people gathered outside the SUV yanked him out.

Jennifer sat in the rear passenger seat. Her 71-pound body was pinned between the front and back seats. Her father tried to pull her out, but she wouldn't budge.

"I can't, Daddy, I can't," she said.

Roland figured the only way to save his daughter was to get out and use a crowbar to pry the front seat away from her. But once he exited the car, he couldn't get back in.

"By then, the fire, it was everywhere," he explains.

Roland stood weeping outside the SUV as Jennifer screamed her last words:

"Daddy! Help me, please! Please help me!"

The third-grader was almost completely unrecognizable when she was finally pulled from the vehicle. Her ears, nose, mouth and hair had burned away. Her entire body was severely charred. Her size four and a half Adidas sneakers had melted to her feet.

Roland sometimes blames himself for Jennifer's death. He has replayed the accident scene in his mind at least a thousand times.

Three months after the accident, Metro's board of directors rewarded First Transit with another five-year, $169 million contract to operate Metro's northwest garage. The vote was unanimous.

Even before Jennifer's death, Metro knew that First Transit's operations were inferior to its own. First Transit's safety and on-time performance ratings consistently lagged behind Metro's. First Transit provoked nearly twice as many passenger complaints. During its second year of operation, First Transit's accident rate was 87 percent higher.

Roland was disgusted when he learned that Metro had renewed the contract. But he wasn't surprised.

"They're Metro," he says. "They do whatever the hell they want to do. Who's going to stop them?"

Roland may have figured the contract decision was business-as-usual. But prominent Houston attorney Richard Mithoff, who represented the Rodriguez family in a civil lawsuit against First Transit, was stunned.

Mithoff hired Friendswood-based transportation consultant Roger Allen to investigate First Transit's operations and driver Clifford Wayne Kidd. Allen produced a scathing, seven-page report that led First Transit to pay the Rodriguez family a $10 million settlement just before the case went to trial.

Allen discovered that Kidd had no prior experience driving a commercial passenger bus. First Transit failed to conduct a basic background check on Kidd, violating federal and state safety regulations.

Kidd's criminal record included convictions for a speeding citation, reckless driving and failure to obey traffic signs. He had been fired from a tractor-trailer driving job three years earlier for causing two crashes in his first three months.

Jennifer Rodriguez was killed on Kidd's 46th day operating a Metro bus.

"It's absolutely sickening that they allowed that man on the road," says Allen, who has testified in three dozen trials across the country involving bus and trucking accidents. "He lied about everything on his application."

Kidd's employment file revealed that he had taken only one written test, called "Be the Defensive Driving Expert." He failed it, getting fewer than half of the 15 questions correct. First Transit nonetheless green-lighted him for behind-the-wheel training.

Allen also found that First Transit never bothered to investigate the accident, violating industry standards and its contract with Metro.

It remains unknown whether First Transit ever investigated the crash, or any other serious accidents caused by its drivers since they consider their investigation files to be secret.

In his deposition, Kidd said he never received any form of discipline or reprimand from First Transit after the accident. He never even gave a statement to his employers.

Months later, First Transit fired its safety manager. But Allen's report ultimately blames Dave Van Fossen, the general manager overseeing Metro's northwest garage, saying he never conducted background checks on potential employees and that an investigation was never conducted into the accident. Van Fossen continues to run the garage.

Kidd, meanwhile, didn't just keep his job. He was promoted to a supervisory position in the yard, making sure that buses leave on time. He voluntarily quit a couple of years later, according to several First Transit drivers who worked with him.

The Press asked Metro why it does not oversee First Transit's operations, particularly after it was revealed in the Rodriguez fatality case that First Transit did not properly screen and test its driver.

Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts claimed ignorance: "Metro is not aware of any facts established in court indicating there was a lack of screening or testing by First Transit. Metro was not a party to that case and we have no first-hand knowledge about its settlement."

Roberts blew even more exhaust, writing: "Metro conducts regular review of the [First Transit] employee files to ensure the contracts remain in compliance."

This is completely contradicted by Metro's attorney.

"Metro does not have copies of qualifications files, employment applications, training records and background checks on First Transit employees," wrote Metro legal counsel Paula Alexander in a letter to the Press dated November 7, 2005. "Metro does not have investigation files on any First Transit incidents/accidents."

Metro's admitted lack of oversight has dangerous implications. There could be more Clifford Wayne Kidds terrorizing Houston's streets: Men and women in Metro uniforms, operating Metro buses, who were criminally convicted of driving offenses, lied on their employment applications and failed their driving tests.

The Press requested First Transit's files to investigate whether the company has improved its operations since Jennifer Rodriguez's death.

But First Transit is keeping a tight lid on its files. And Metro is looking the other way.


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