Passengers aboard JTA bus to 911: 'We got hit by a train'

Driver involved in more than dozen accidents in her 20 years with JTA

By Kelly Wiley - I-TEAM reporter, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A passenger on the Jacksonville Transportation Authority bus that was struck by an Amtrak train on Monday morning said the driver was trying to beat a train across the tracks.

There were nine passengers on the bus when it was hit at a railroad crossing near the intersection of Post Street and McDuff Avenue. One told the I-TEAM there was panic as the train was coming toward the bus.

"My whole life flashed before my eyes. I could have died that day," passenger Brian Buchanan said. "I remember the passengers screaming, telling the driver to 'stop, slow down, stop.'"

According to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office accident report, the crossing lights activated as the bus was approaching the tracks. The bus stopped for a safety check, which is standard procedure for JTA drivers, and the investigator wrote that's when the arms of the rail crossing came down on the bus, leaving the right front corner of the bus on the tracks.

The report says the bus stayed there for about one minute before the train hit. Over that time, the train's horn sounded several times.

"When I looked the train was right there. I thought, 'Oh my God, are you serious?'" Buchanan said. "I just remember the glass shattering, the bus rocking like it could’ve tilted. I probably wouldn’t be here right now if that would’ve happened."

photo from inside bus hit by trainBus passengers were among the first to call 911.

Caller: This is McDuff and the train tracks. We just got hit. We’re on a city bus, a JTA bus. We got hit by a train.
911 operator: OK. So we need rescue started?
Caller: Yes, I’d say so.

“The bus driver was gasping for air saying, 'Oh my gosh.' She could barely get any words out,” Buchanan said.

A few minutes later, another passenger called 911.

Caller: Yes, we had something earlier where the train hit the bus and they took the driver. But now two passengers are claiming injuries, so we need rescue back at Post Avenue at McDuff where the train hit the bus.
Dispatch:  OK. ... So you still got police there right?
Caller: I think so. I’m not sure. They should be.

LISTEN: 911 calls after train hit bus

The bus driver, Carolyn Simmons, was treated and released that afternoon.

Simmons was cited with failure to obey a traffic control device at a railroad crossing, making her at fault in the crash.

JTA has placed her on a "hold-off" status without pay until the agency determines if she violated their safety guidelines.

The police report said the traffic light was green as the bus approaching the tracks. The diver's union sent News4Jax a statement after watching JTA surveillance video of the crash saying: “Ms. Simmons was put in a vulnerable situation with the traffic light turning green as she approached the tracks. ... If the light turns red, that accident never happens.”

A JTA released a new statement Friday.

“We are thankful no one was seriously injured following Monday’s incident, and are still looking into what happened. We are reserving any further comment until that internal investigation is completed. In the meantime, we want our customers to know that the JTA takes their safety and the safety of others extremely seriously.”

The I-TEAM learned Simmons has been involved in more than a dozen crashes in her nearly 20-year career with JTA. While most of those were not her fault and many of them were found to be not preventable, she was suspended for 15 days in 2011 for getting into three preventable collisions or incidents within two years.

Monday's crash with the train was the latest of four incidents involving JTA buses in the past three weeks. The first incident happened in early June, when 50-year-old Jeanie Rozar became entangled as she got off a bus in Mayport, was run over by the bus and died.

JTA officials also said all the incidents are under investigation. It is also re-evaluating policies about railroad crossings, particularly those with unique characteristics, such as the one on McDuff Avenue, to determine what changes may need to be made.

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