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In wake of deadly accident, MTA makes safety fixes to help blind riders

January 30, 2009 |  3:58 pm

The death of a visually-impaired man who fell from a Blue Line light rail platform near Carson and was run over by the train on Wednesday has spurred transit officials to order immediate safety improvements.

Cameron Cuthbertson, 48, of Compton, was trying to board a southbound train at the Del Amo Station when he apparently walked off the platform toward what he believed was a train door but was actually a gap between train cars, and he fell to the tracks. Passengers were not able to notify the train’s operator in time to stop it from leaving the station, according to Marc Littman, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Dscn3239_2 As a result of the accident, Littman said that agency Chief Executive Roger Snoble on Wednesday immediately ordered that devices be installed on all light rail platforms to stop people from walking between cars. The MTA, officials said, has been testing the devices (at right) in recent months, and they are already in place at four Gold Line stations, including Union Station, Lincoln/Cypress, Del Mar and Lake.

Littman said that he could not recall another such accident involving MTA trains. He added that the new barriers would ultimately need to be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates rail operations in the state. Another MTA official said that in the wake of the death, the agency could go ahead and put in more of the barriers.

Subway trains operated by the MTA already have two sets of chains to guard openings between train cars. But the agency is also considering adding the barriers to subway stops because it remains possible that the chains would not prevent a person from falling onto the tracks.

David Puglisi, the manager for rail startups for the MTA, said that the agency began looking into the barriers last year after purchasing new rail cars that had gaps between the cars. Puglisi said that the Federal Transit Administration -– which helped fund the purchase -- raised concerns about the cars as part of its safety certification process.

Puglisi said he was unaware of any similar accidents involving blind or visually-impaired riders, but that other riders -- including some who had been drinking -- had occasionally fallen between the cars over the years.

Kent Zelas, who works in the readers representative’s office at The Times, was on a northbound train leaving the Del Amo Station on Wednesday and saw Cuthbertson fall onto the tracks.

“What I saw him do is put his cane in that empty space and he thought it was a doorway and he walked into it,” Zelas said. “What he didn’t do was tap the bottom of that space to make sure there was a floor to walk into. He just assumed it was a door.”

Zelas said that as his train left the station going north, he immediately hit the call button to tell the operator of his train what happened. He said that he wasn’t sure if there were other people on the platform who could have stopped Cuthbertson's fall.

Stephanie Chan was on her way to work in Long Beach on the train that hit Cuthbertson. Sitting in the rear car, Chan said that she saw Cuthbertson approach the doors but then veer in a different direction.

“I thought that was kind of weird and assumed he was going to the next door, and I heard a really loud crash and I heard him cry out,” Chan said.

Chan said that she believed he was either on the train car in front of her or still on the platform. Then the doors closed. “I heard him yell out 'Stop!' and that made me concerned -– I thought he was trying to get inside the door,” she said. “I stood up and didn’t see him on the platform. Everyone on the car was freaked out.”

Another passenger, she said, looked out the rear window of the train and saw Cuthbertson’s body on the tracks. At that point, Chan contacted the train’s operator through the intercom, and she halted the train down the tracks. Chan and another passenger went to the front of the car to talk to the engineer -– passing transit police on the train who were collecting tickets.

“She” – the engineer – “looked shocked and didn’t know” what had happened, Chan said.

MTA spokesperson Rick Jager declined to say whether transit police were on the train, citing an ongoing investigation of the accident.

The Times was unable to locate family or other contacts for Cuthbertson on Friday.

--Steve Hymon