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
Metro creatively interpreting accident statistics in ways that enable it to misrepresent the actual number of bus crashes occurring each year
Metro taking no responsibility for accidents incurred by First Transit, a private subcontractor that operates one-sixth of Metro's buses and consistently posts a higher accident rate
In its own bus barn case, Metro still has not implemented many of the recommendations made by its investigators.
Eight months after Thomas's death, Metro continues to require its maintenance workers to wear the same "too cumbersome" rubber boots when operating buses. According to Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts, only new maintenance workers will be required to have CDLs. The 706 bus fuelers and cleaners Metro currently employs will be "grandfathered in," Roberts says, and will receive no additional driver training.
Unlike Metro, most bus companies require their maintenance workers to hold CDLs though they do not drive beyond the garage lots, according to Roger Allen, a nationally recognized transportation consultant based in Friendswood.
"Metro is operating below industry standards," Allen says.
In 1997, Metro's board of directors privatized more than a dozen of its bus routes to cut costs, projecting an annual savings of $5 million. First Transit, a private company headquartered in Cincinnati, has since won two consecutive five-year contracts totaling $245 million to operate Metro's northwest garage and one-sixth of Metro's 1,400 buses.
Metro drivers are paid about 80 percent higher wages than First Transit drivers, causing widespread speculation that First Transit drivers are insufficiently trained and supervised. This view is upheld by the poor performance ratings First Transit has posted during the last decade.
"Is First Transit being held to the same criteria we are? We don't think so," says Sandra Burleson, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 260, which represents about 1,800 Metro drivers and maintenance workers. "We have concerns about their training practices; we don't trust their records."
Commuters have almost no way of knowing that First Transit drivers are at the wheel. The drivers wear Metro uniforms and commandeer Metro buses. The only thing identifying them as First Transit drivers is a small patch worn on their uniform sleeves.
Even so, commuters are safer on the buses than in the streets. First Transit drivers have caused some of the most grisly, high-profile accidents involving Metro buses in recent years, and their victims were mainly car passengers and pedestrians.
Despite these failings, the Press found as follows:
Metro conducts no oversight of First Transit's operations. Metro neither oversees background checks on First Transit drivers nor ensures that they are properly trained.
Metro does not examine First Transit's internal investigation reports into major accidents. Metro representatives claim they do not even have access to First Transit's investigation files.
Metro keeps incomplete records of First Transit accident reports. Even the most egregious cases, in which First Transit drivers are responsible for deaths and serious injuries, are not fully documented by Metro.
First Transit's incompetence has saved Metro more than $1.2 million since its contract began. Each month Metro recoups thousands of dollars from First Transit for services not rendered.
Metro frequently brushes off complaints about its operations by pointing to statistics that indicate an exemplary safety record. A closer look at the numbers and the faces behind them reveals a grimmer story.
"Metro has one of the lowest accident rates in the country," George Smalley, Metro's vice president of external affairs, boasted in January after a Metro bus killed a pedestrian. Metro's record of 0.68 accidents per 100,000 miles, Smalley said, "is unheard of in the transit industry."
This statistic is deceptive, since Metro makes a distinction between "accidents" and "incidents." An "accident," according to Metro, is when a pedestrian or passenger either dies or is transported from the scene to a hospital, or when a vehicle sustains damages exceeding $1,000. An "incident" covers everything else.
Metro buses are involved in multiple "incidents" nearly every day, the Press learned while poring through several phone-book-size stacks of reports dating from 2001 to the present. Some days are worse than others. For instance, on November 3, 2005, Metro buses were involved in at least eight scrapes. They rear-ended one car, sideswiped another, busted a mirror and flattened a tire against a curb, among other mishaps. (Click here for a snapshot look at some of the most damaging run-ins people have had with Metro.)
These and hundreds of other crashes are not factored into the "annual accident rate" Metro frequently holds up to demonstrate its commitment to safety.
"...We operate one of the safest systems in the nation," wrote Metro CEO and President Frank J. Wilson in a letter published last month by the Houston Chronicle, in which he makes reference to two recent Metro fatalities. "In the two years between [these] tragedies, we logged 8.8 million hours of service."
Wilson neglected to mention in his letter that during the two-year period he cites, Metro buses killed a total of eight people. Metro investigators ruled that half of these were "preventable accidents" caused by the bus operators.
Wilson declined to be interviewed for this article. Metro spokeswoman Roberts insisted that questions be submitted in writing and would provide only written responses.
In an apparent attempt to thwart our investigation, Metro initially estimated it would cost as much as $21,000 to provide access to the public documents we requested. In the end, the Press spent about $250 for Metro to compile and copy the information.
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.
"Al remains devastated by the accident," says defense attorney Stanley Schneider. "Metro hung him out to dry."
Kao's family members say Sheppard got off easy. Metro, they say, got off scot-free.
"Metro would like to blame it on one bad bus driver," says Edmund Kao, Jeffrey's younger brother.
Edmund Kao suffered from severe depression after his brother's death. He quit his $70,000-a-year job working as a chemical engineer for a small Houston biotech company, and spent several months in therapy.
"I needed to stop doing everything and try to get better or I was gonna die," he says.
Edmund Kao has since become obsessive about monitoring Metro's operations. During Sheppard's criminal trial, he learned that Metro buses are supposed to travel between three and five miles per hour when turning through intersections. The bus that hit his brother was traveling at twice that rate.
Edmund Kao frequently returns to the intersection where his brother was hit. Armed with a video camera, he tapes Metro buses turning south from Walker onto Smith and calculates their speeds. He says he has recorded buses blowing through red lights and reports that all the buses he has taped turned at a rate of speed between seven and 13 miles per hour.
"They drive like they're road-raging motorists in small cars," he says. "They're actually road-raging motorists in 40-ton buses, which are much harder to stop."
For two years after her husband's death, Loan-Anh Kao says, she was hounded by harassing phone calls from Metro. There was never an apology, she says. Only nagging, persistent calls from Metro's claims department. "We would like to close your husband's file," an adjuster would say. "To whom should we make this check?"
Loan-Anh Kao says a claims adjuster once even threatened to sue her for not immediately accepting Metro's compensation offer. Metro spokesman Ken Connaughton denies it.
In 1973, the state legislature passed the Texas Tort Claims Act, which limits Metro's liability to $100,000. That's the maximum amount Metro pays for causing an accident.
Loan-Anh Kao, a Harvard-trained attorney still retained by Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, has lobbied state lawmakers to increase the damage cap or at least index it for inflation and cost-of-living increases, but none has taken up the issue.
For her, it's not about the money. It's about forcing Metro to face consequences.
"Jeff was my soul mate," says his widow, who met her husband when they were both freshmen at Rice University. "To me, he was everything. To Metro, he was only a number."
Metro loves numbers.
In October 2003, the authority issued a sunny press release that began: "Proving that safety remains METRO's No. 1 priority, the transit authority has broken its annual safety record two years in a row by logging 0.89 accidents per 100,000 miles in Fiscal Year 2003."
Metro executives didn't don their party hats for long.
One week later, Jeffrey Kao was killed. Four weeks after Kao's death, a Metro bus struck again.
Just before 9 a.m. on December 3, 2003, a 60-foot-long, 22-ton double-bus knocked 47-year-old certified public accountant Carol Donnelly to the ground and crushed her beneath its left-front tire as she was midway through the intersection of Smith and St. Joseph Parkway downtown.
"The driver never saw her even after he hit her," says Dwayne Newton, an attorney who represents the Donnelly family. "She was dragged for 40 feet, until other pedestrians literally got in front and stopped the bus."
The City of Houston may bear some responsibility for Donnelly's death. The pedestrian signal at her crosswalk did not work despite 14 complaints made to the Department of Public Works and Engineering that year.
Kao and Donnelly were struck by Metro buses a half-mile apart. But the bus that killed Donnelly was operated by a First Transit driver. Since there is no damage cap for a subcontracting company in Houston, the Donnelly family wasn't forced to settle for a measly $100,000. They're seeking millions in restitution. The trial is set to begin next month.
There's another important difference between the two fatal accidents. The Metro driver who hit Kao was fired and later convicted of a felony. Samuel Rivers, on the other hand, didn't just escape indictment. He still drives buses for First Transit.
Rivers could never boast a sterling driving record. In 1992, he spent four days in jail and paid a $500 fine for driving with a suspended license. In 1997, he was charged with reckless driving. In the months leading up to Donnelly's death, Rivers was involved in at least two other crashes while operating a Metro bus, according to First Transit accident reports.
Burleson, the union president, says Metro has a reputation for axing drivers first and asking questions later. During the last couple of years, she says, Metro terminated seven drivers for causing accidents. In each case, she says, the driver filed a grievance and eventually regained his job with full back pay.
First Transit employs a kinder, gentler approach.
For instance, in May 2001, First Transit driver Clifford Wayne Kidd rear-ended a car stuck in traffic, killing nine-year-old Jennifer Rodriguez (see "Life Interrupted").
First Transit provided the Rodriguez family a $10 million settlement after it was revealed that Kidd lacked prior experience driving a commercial passenger bus. Kidd had lied repeatedly on his employment application.
And yet, after the fatal accident, First Transit promoted Kidd to a nondriving supervisory position.
Why does Metro continue to reward First Transit multimillion-dollar contracts?
"It's all about the money," says Allen. "Metro didn't have to pay the Rodriguez family $10 million; First Transit did. Metro's attitude is 'Oh, well, the skin's off their nose, not ours.' "
To recap: If a First Transit driver causes a fatal accident, the private company may be forced to dole out millions to the grieving family. Metro pays nothing. And when it's a Metro driver doing the killing, the authority only has to fork over a maximum amount of $100,000, which hardly dents its $273 million annual operating budget.
"Metro is not being held accountable," says Houston attorney Richard Mithoff, who represented the Rodriguez family, "and there's no incentive for them to improve."
The Chronicle has frequently reported that Metro's contract with First Transit saves it $5 million a year, mostly through lower wages. But there's another way Metro capitalizes on use of the private company.
Written into Metro's contract with First Transit is a section called Liquidated Damages, defined as fees assessed "if the contractor fails to comply with certain minimum performance standards." The contract spells out the types of infractions and their corresponding fees, which at first glance wouldn't seem to amount to much.
For instance: If a First Transit driver doesn't have a valid Texas driver's license, Metro deducts $25. If a First Transit driver operates a bus that is unclean or has a damaged seat, Metro docks $50. If a First Transit driver misses a trip, Metro is compensated for each trip plus $100. And so on...
"It's not a penalty," insists Jim Laughlin, Metro director of transportation programs. "It's a deduction of money for services not rendered."
However Metro spins it, First Transit's incompetence has not only made Houston's streets more dangerous. It has also saved Metro a bundle.
The Press requested a list of all liquidated damages reported since First Transit's contract began, and discovered that it's not at all uncommon for Metro to deduct tens of thousands of dollars each month for the abuses listed above. Altogether, assessing liquidated damages has saved Metro more than $1.2 million from January 1997 to the present.
Metro saves itself additional money by nickel-and-diming its victims.
Federal and state safety regulations require Metro to keep investigation files for all accidents that result in injury or death. These files comprise police reports, witness statements, insurance claims, medical expenses and, if necessary, legal documents and autopsy reports. The files are often several inches thick.
While examining more than a dozen investigation files, the Press discovered internal memos and e-mails circulated among Metro attorneys and claims adjusters who negotiate settlements with victims and their families. These documents offer a revealing insider's look into how Metro treats its victims and the factors it weighs when determining how families should be compensated.
On June 4, 2002, a Metro trolley killed 48-year-old construction worker Clinton Gregory Jr. as he crossed Milam at Prairie. The trolley hit and dragged Clinton with its left front tire. The Houston City Council responded with a public hearing on pedestrian safety downtown and later passed its first pedestrian-protection ordinance.
Two months after Gregory's death, the issue still wasn't going away, much to Metro's dismay.
"Due to the high-profile nature of the claim (the first of trolley/pedestrian accidents), we run the risk of more 'bad press' if the settlement process is prolonged," Metro claims supervisor Elaine Lum warned in an internal e-mail dated August 12, 2002, and sent to senior attorney Randy Frazier Jr., director of risk management Tim Kriner and claims manager Irma Salazar. "Therefore, I am asking that you please contact each of these attorneys directly to coordinate the documents we need in order to pay this claim."
Other internal documents demonstrate Metro's efforts to save a few bucks, even when the evidence is heavily stacked against it.
On June 20, 1999, Father's Day, a Metro bus killed 71-year-old pedestrian Gustavo Tamez. The rear right tire crushed his skull. Metro's investigation found that the driver was off-route at the time of the accident and fled the scene.
"MTA does not have a defense," reported Metro's claims committee. "The bus operator lied about his involvement...I cannot perceive how we cannot do anything but accept liability for the accident."
Metro successfully concealed from the public its shared responsibility for Tamez's death. The driver had failed a drug test days prior to the accident, and Metro let him get behind the wheel anyway.
Metro deputy general counsel Alva Trevino wrote in an e-mail dated February 22, 2001, to Kriner, Salazar and claims adjuster Gail Mitchell:
"Our bus operator had been given a random drug test four days before the accident and had tested positive for marijuana. The post accident results however, were negative...Even though he tested negative on the date of the accident, it does not look good for us that we did not pull him as soon as we had knowledge that he had tested positive for marijuana..."
Metro's claims committee recommended a settlement of $95,000.
Kriner began negotiations at $87,500; the family settled for $91,000.
The Press asked Metro's spokeswoman why it routinely lowballs its victims.
"Sometimes cases are settled for less than the recommended amount, and sometimes they are settled for more than the recommended amount," Roberts replied.
The Press did not find a single instance in which Metro settled for more than the amount recommended by its claims committee.
On May 14, 2004, Friendswood resident Georgia Young was on her way to a University of Houston graduation ceremony to watch her son-in-law receive his diploma. She was walking with her husband of 30 years, Rod, and their son, Aaron.
The family was crossing Elgin at Cullen when a turning Metro bus knocked Georgia 17 feet through the air. Rod was also hit and suffered minor injuries. Aaron managed to leap out of the bus's path.
Blood poured from Georgia's nose, face and ears. She suffered severe head trauma that landed her in the neurosurgical intensive care unit at Ben Taub General Hospital for a month.
Today the 59-year-old has no recollection of the accident. Doctors report that her personality has changed significantly. She is childlike. Her judgment and decision-making abilities are impaired. She's forgetful and easily confused. She suffers from vertigo and dizziness, severe depression and persistent shoulder and neck pain.
Georgia's estimated medical and prescription costs for the first seven months after the accident ran to $200,000. Her ongoing treatment will likely exceed a half-million dollars during the next five years.
Metro cut Georgia Young a check for $100,000.
Its claims committee recommended providing Rod and Aaron $25,000 each.
Metro instead offered them $5,000 apiece, which they readily accepted.
Andrea Larsen relocated from Boston to Houston in late August 1999 to work as a financial analyst for Enron. Eleven months later, while on her way to a doctor's appointment on the north side, Larsen was in a crosswalk with a "Walk" signal and was nearly all the way to the curb when she "turned around and saw the grill of the bus, maybe two feet away."
Metro driver Raymond Griffin made a wide left turn through the intersection and hit the 28-year-old just below the butt. Thrown 25 feet, she skidded on her back across the pavement and landed with her head to the curb.
The bus continued forward and rode over both her legs.
"I'm sorry, I just didn't see you," Griffin, who still drives buses for Metro, called from the doorway.
Larsen thought she was paralyzed. But she never lost consciousness.
"So I'm lying there, under the bus, freaking out," she recalls one recent Sunday afternoon at a cafe near her home in the Heights. "I was yelling at people: 'Isn't there a doctor? We're outside a hospital!' "
She directed a passerby to get the cell phone from her purse, dial her parents in eastern Pennsylvania and hold the phone to her ear.
"Mom, I was just run over by a bus!" she cried. "I'm under the bus right now! You need to get to Houston!"
An ambulance arrived and transported Larsen to Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Black tire-tread marks covered her calves; her shins were completely skinned and pocked with gravel.
Doctors took X-rays and discovered something extraordinary: no broken bones.
Larsen couldn't believe it.
Her backpack, which contained a date planner, wallet, cell phone and "an Altoids case smooshed flat," broke her fall and kept her head from cracking against the pavement. Doctors couldn't explain how her legs withstood the impact of a 26,000-pound vehicle.
Larsen was lucky to be alive. But she has suffered from chronic pain ever since.
The hospital released her late that afternoon. Her father helped carry her up three flights of stairs to her apartment. That night, shooting pains blasted through her body.
For six months after the accident, she never left her apartment building. She couldn't sit up or stand long enough to cook. She couldn't walk or drive. Her mother, who nursed her for six weeks after the accident, bought her slip-on shoes because she couldn't bend to reach her feet.
She suffered from severe depression, gained 30 pounds and underwent therapy for two years. Her incessant nightmares were filled with plane crashes, train derailments and bus accidents.
"It was a very, very dark time for me," she says. "I died in my dreams every night."
Today the nightmares are less frequent. But the pain persists. Doctors say she will eventually need to undergo shoulder and hip replacements and back surgeries.
Before the accident, Larsen ran as much as 30 miles per week. Doctors told her she would never run again. They said she may not be able to have children.
She has spent the last six years doggedly proving the doctors wrong. In January she ran a half-marathon through Houston. She married in 2003 and last year gave birth to her first child.
But she has difficulty lifting and holding her infant daughter. Simple house chores quickly exhaust her. She can't ride a bicycle.
Larsen remains haunted by not just the accident but also the callous treatment she received from Metro.
Even before a doctor examined her, Larsen says, a Metro representative came to her hospital room and told her to sign a form relieving the company of all liability. After she returned home, she says, Metro representatives called repeatedly to insist that she sign the forms.
"My mom felt very pressured by them," Larsen says. "They made me feel like I did something wrong."
Larsen later retained attorney Scott Humphries, a personal friend, to represent her. In a letter dated August 22, 2000, Humphries chastised Metro's former senior liability claims adjuster Mary Frances Parker, writing, "I sincerely hope that you did not invade Ms. Larsen's privacy, while she was injured and in bed, to ask for a release for Metro not two weeks after Metro ran over her with a bus."
This letter is contained in Metro's investigation file on Larsen. The file is enormous. It comprises several thousand pages and fills a large cardboard box.
Throughout the file, Humphries accuses Metro of dragging its feet in settling the claim. Three years after the accident, Metro still hadn't paid Larsen a penny.
Metro initially offered to compensate Larsen just $13,000, less than half the medical expenses she had incurred. Humphries demanded $100,000, to cover therapy and future medical expenses.
"If you break a finger it's zero dollars, if you die it's $100,000," Larsen says a Metro claims adjuster once told her attorney. "Your client is somewhere in the middle."
On April 2, 2003, three weeks before the case went to trial, Metro senior attorney Frazier sent an 800-word internal e-mail to Kriner, Mitchell, Salazar and Metro attorneys Jakki Hansen and Paula Alexander, which casts a bright light on Metro's priorities and how it regards its victims.
Frazier admits that Metro was completely at fault:
"Liability is undisputed, our bus hit Ms. Larsen when she was well into the crosswalk and it should have yielded to the pedestrian...In this case Ms. Larsen was definitely physically injured by the bus...The larger part of her injuries are going to be psychological."
Frazier indicates Metro's penchant for exploiting less-dedicated attorneys:
"...Our exposure in this case exceeds our cap by a large degree. The Plaintiff's attorney is generally more skilled than most of the other attorney's [sic] we see. His wife is a very good friend of the Plaintiff (listed as emergency contact) so his motivation is not just pecuniary."
Frazier frets about how going to trial could sully Metro's public image:
"In my opinion, it's possible that she could get an award from the jury of up to $200,000 (includes medicals, lost wages, past and future pain and suffering). Ms. Larsen will present physically well to the jury and is very smart...At this time there would be very negative political ramifications to a substantial verdict..."
And, finally, Frazier advises settling before trial and suggests a dollar amount:
"I recommend that reserves be increased to $90,000 and that another offer be extended to the Plaintiff's attorney. I believe that he will accept an offer of between $80,000 to $90,000."
Metro offered $75,000. By this time, Larsen was emotionally spent and reluctant to relive the accident at trial. She wanted to move on with her life. So she accepted the offer.
And that's how Metro put a young woman through hell, and saved itself a few grand in the process.
Black rings encircle David Avila's caramel-colored eyes. The baby-faced 25-year-old speaks in a whisper, as though sapped of all energy. His freckled hands keep brushing across his eyes and face. He isn't crying. There are no tears left in him.
Avila sits forward in a back booth at a Whataburger located on Main Street just outside the 610 Loop. His older brother and sister are at a nearby table. Their impromptu, weeklong trip in Houston is over. In a few minutes they will caravan back to Chicago.
Avila and his siblings got a late-night phone call that their mother was hit by a bus a couple of blocks from her home. They packed their bags and left early the next morning. By the time they arrived, it was too late.
Like so many other Metro victims, 43-year-old Domitila Leon-Herrera was in the crosswalk, with the "Walk" sign, and was more than halfway through the intersection when a turning bus struck her.
Driver Romain Alexandre was accelerating at more than 30 miles per hour. The bus's left front corner clipped Leon-Herrera, whose head cracked a spiderweb into the driver's-side windshield.
The bus trapped her beneath its rear left wheels, crushed her legs at mid-thigh and dragged her 20 feet.
She spent several minutes lying in the street, clutching her limbs and crying for help.
The next day doctors amputated her legs. She died hours later.
At the wake Avila couldn't believe his once-attractive, boisterous mother, who every night would cook enough to feed an army, was the person inside that box.
Her face was flattened, her legs "wrapped like meat in a wrapper" and separated from the rest of her body.
"I know we born, we grow up and we die," Avila says, "but to die like thisÉ"
Just six months earlier Avila and his wife had buried their three-month-old daughter, who died from sudden infant death syndrome.
"First my daughter, then my mother," he says.
The day after the January 20, 2006, accident, Metro went into full-blown damage-control mode. Smalley, a senior manager, led a press conference in which he defended Metro's safety record by claiming that Metro drivers are involved in 0.68 accidents per 100,000 miles. This statistic includes neither accidents involving First Transit drivers nor less-serious crashes that Metro classifies as "incidents."
To the cameras and reporters, Smalley extended "sympathy and condolences" to Leon-Herrera's family. But Avila and his siblings say they never received any apology. And neither did Lorenzo Hernandez, her longtime boyfriend.
Metro still has not provided financial compensation for the accident. Not that any amount of money could make things right.
"When I go home, I think about her and I cry because I miss her so much," says Hernandez. "I feel sick every time I cross a street. I see Metro buses everywhere."
Avila remarks that four years ago his mother fled Mexico City, one of the world's most violent cities, and came to Houston seeking a safer, better life.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I just can't believe how a bus driver can miss a person," he says.
Neither the driver's nor Metro's explanation provides Avila much solace.
Alexandre, who was fired by Metro and now faces felony charges, blamed Leon-Herrera for entering his blind spot.
Metro, meanwhile, insists her death was a fluke. And it has the numbers to prove it.