The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the deaths of two BART workers killed in a collision on the tracks this afternoon, officials said today.
Two investigators are on their way to the Bay Area, the agency said on its Twitter account this evening.
BART General Manager Grace Crunican said in a written statement that “the National Transportation Safety Board has informed BART and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that they will take over the investigation” into the fatal collision.
“BART’s System Safety Department and the CPUC will provide support and assistance to the NTSB investigators,” Crunican said.
The workers, one BART employee and one contractor whose names have not yet been released, were killed shortly before 2 p.m. today while conducting track maintenance a mile north of the Walnut Creek station.
The deaths occurred in the second full day of a strike by two of BART’s unions, the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555.
BART officials said the two deceased employees, one a BART employee and reported union member and one a contractor, were inspecting the tracks in response to a report of a dip on the tracks.
Both employees were highly experienced, both in transit rail and in freight rail, BART officials said.
“They understand the railroad, they understand how to work around moving trains,” Paul Oversier, BART’s assistant general manager, said of the two employees. “They were doing today what they have probably done 100 if not 1000 other times in their career.”
Some doubt remains about who was at the controls of the train.
Oversier said there were six employees on the train at the time of the collision, which occurred shortly before 2 p.m. around one mile north of the Walnut Creek station.
BART officials previously issued a statement saying that an experienced operator was at the controls of the train but that it was operating under computer control.
However, Oversier said this afternoon that only BART police officers had spoken to those employees and he would not “engage in speculation” about who was operating the train, who was in the cab and who was in the passenger compartment until officials learned the results of the police investigation.
At this afternoon’s BART press conference (you can watch video of the entire press event above), Oversier was asked “You don’t know who was driving the train?”
“No, we don’t” Oversier responded.
BART trains are not carrying passengers during the strike, but BART officials have said some managers have been trained to operate the trains for maintenance purposes in the event of a strike. They have not yet said, however, whether the train’s operator in today’s incident was a manager.
Patricia Schuchardt, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said today that the training for train operators takes around 16 weeks.
Crunican today said this was “a tragic day in BART’s history.”
“The entire BART family is grieving,” Crunican said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of our deceased co-workers.”
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 said on its official Twitter account in response to the deaths this afternoon that it will not picket tomorrow “out of respect for the families involved.”
ATU 1555 and SEIU 1021 officials issued a joint statement this afternoon saying that they were unaware of the details of what had happened.
“We express our deepest sympathies for the families of the individuals who died in this tragic accident,” the statement said.
The deaths cast a pall over any efforts to renew stalled contract talks. Both sides today refused to discuss negotiations or the strike, however, saying their focus for now is on the workers.
Antonette Bryant, president of ATU Local 1555, said “We’re not here to talk about work.”
“Two men are dead, this is an extremely tragic situation,” Bryant said. “I think we need to keep our eyes focused.”
Oversier said labor issues and negotiations “are not at the forefront of our minds.”
“We just lost two people in the BART family and that’s what our focus is on, getting through this evening.”
According to Crunican, this might be the last time we’ll hear from BART on the circumstances of the accident.
“The NTSB has informed BART that all further public statements about the accident will be made by the NTSB in their role as the investigating agency,” Crunican said this evening.
Bay City News contributed significantly to this report