MBTA: Conductor in Boston trolley crash was texting his girlfriend

By Milton J. Valencia and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff

Saying he was having difficulty containing his outrage, the MBTA’s chief said a trolley driver was text-messaging from his cellphone when he rear-ended another Green Line trolley on Friday night, sending scores of people to the hospital and forcing the closure of the Government Center station.

The conductor, 24 years old and with 22 months on the job, was texting his girlfriend, said another MBTA official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The driver’s action caused a shutdown of a part of the Green Line and left a surreal scene as emergency workers set up a make-shift emergency area next to a circus tent before ushering the wounded to hospitals. It is difficult, MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas told reporters, “to contain my outrage” at the driver’s action.

Under MBTA policy, a driver can be fired for texting while operating a train, trolley, or bus.

None of the injuries — 49 were taken to the hospital — was considered life-threatening, Boston emergency medical officials said. But the passengers were certainly startled, screaming, and more than a few bloodied, when the collision came without warning at 7:18 p.m. The speed of the moving trolley was not yet known.

But the moving Green Line trolley that came from behind had enough force to jolt a second trolley parked at a red light about 100 feet into the tunnel toward the Park Street station. Both trolleys derailed and sustained significant damage at the point of impact.

Officials described a chaotic scene — with metal strewn about, passengers in disarray, and some people who had to be removed from under twisted metal using saws and excavation equipment. Each of the trolleys, which were headed westbound, contained two cars.

The operator of the striking trolley suffered a broken wrist in the
crash, officials said. He was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, and
was in stable condition Friday night, officials said.

‘‘There was just noise and the whole thing went black,’’ said Judy Brenner, a 41-year-old Brookline woman who was heading home on the rear trolley from her job at an executive search firm. ‘‘Everyone fell on top of each other.’’

Edmundo Silva, a 49-year-old from Medford, was sitting in the front trolley. ‘‘There was a big jump, jump, jump,’’ he said, emphatically pounding his fist into his palm.

At that point, everyone fell down, including him. He tried to grab for a pole but was knocked to the floor, injuring his side and leg.

‘‘All the lights went out and everybody just started screaming,’’ said Laszlo Panajoth, 28, whose girlfriend was taken to the hospital with neck injuries.

Brenner said she saw one person with a scalp laceration and, as she spoke to a reporter, she was on her way to get an X-ray at Boston Medical Center. At impact, she fell, hit her head, and blacked out momentarily before fellow passengers woke her.

‘‘It was so black, it was hard to see who was injured the most,’’ she said.

In total, EMS officials counted 49 people taken to hospitals around the city, after some were assessed next to the circus tent by Government Center Plaza. Another 75 walked off on their own, according to Steve MacDonald, a spokesman for the Boston Fire Department. Passengers said the response from emergency workers — including 120 firefighters — was swift.

‘‘We went to a three-alarm, just to get enough people here to get people out,’’ MacDonald said.

Next door, at the Big Apple Circus, families were blissfully watching the clowns and dancers, even as ambulances circled them. A public address announcer came on at intermission to tell those in attendance that there had been a crash on the T, but offered few details.

Chris LaCorte, 26, of Quincy, who was there with his girlfriend and her daughter, said he was surprised to walk out of the tent to find the area swarming with ambulances, MBTA personnel, police, media, and emergency medical technicians.

‘‘No one told us how serious it was,’’ LaCorte said. ‘‘You hope it was just a train accident and nothing more. You hope everyone is alright.’’

Service between the Park Street and Government Center stations was expected to resume Saturday.

Friday night’s rear-end crash happened nearly a year after Terrese Edmonds, a Green Line operator, lost her life in another rear-end collision during rush hour in Newton. In that crash, Edmonds’ trolley hit the car in front of her. None of the other 200 people on the trolleys was seriously injured that night. The accident left a scar among T operators and commuters and heightened concerns about the potential for rear-end collisions on the line.

Federal transportation safety officials ruled that Edmonds was speeding, going nearly four times faster than the car should have been on that section of track.

The Green Line is a 19th-century antique and the oldest line in the MBTA, which is the country’s oldest subway system. It has been under scrutiny for years because of numerous crashes and derailments.

In the 1990s, after several incidents, the American Public Transit Association produced a report with 17 safety recommendations for the Green Line. A rear-end crash in 1995 at Copley Station left 32 people injured.

Globe correspondents Christopher Girard, John M. Guilfoil, Matt Byrne, and Jenna Nierstedt contributed to this report.

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