NTSB: Crash-preventing safety system was being installed

Published: Monday, February 05, 2018 @ 3:36 PM
Updated: Monday, February 05, 2018 @ 3:34 PM


            The site of Sunday's early morning train crash between an Amtrak train, bottom, and a CSX freight train, top left, in Cayce, S.C. Federal investigators are planning to give an update on their probe into a deadly crash between a freight train and a passenger train in South Carolina. The National Transportation Safety Board says on Twitter that the agency will hold a meeting briefing at 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.( AP Photo/Jeff Blake)
The site of Sunday's early morning train crash between an Amtrak train, bottom, and a CSX freight train, top left, in Cayce, S.C. Federal investigators are planning to give an update on their probe into a deadly crash between a freight train and a passenger train in South Carolina. The National Transportation Safety Board says on Twitter that the agency will hold a meeting briefing at 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.( AP Photo/Jeff Blake)

Railway signals were out while crews installed a safety system that could have prevented the exact type of crash that killed two people in South Carolina when an Amtrak train was diverted to a side track and slammed head-on into an empty freight train, authorities said Monday.

Automated signals that could have warned the passenger train to stop before reaching the switch sending it down the side track were turned off as workers installed a GPS-based system called positive train control, or PTC, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

A day before, Sumwalt told reporters "an operational PTC is designed to prevent this type of incident."

The crew that parked the CSX freight train on the side track and left the padlocked switch in position to divert trains from the main line were interviewed Monday, along with the dispatcher keeping up with trains in the area as the signals weren't working, Sumwalt said.

Sumwalt told reporters he had not been briefed about what the CSX workers said.

The Amtrak engineer sounded his horn seven seconds before the crash and applied emergency brakes three seconds before the train collided with the other locomotive at 50 mph (80 kph), Sumwalt said, citing information from the passenger train's data recorder.

"The expectation for the Amtrak crew is that they were clear," Sumwalt said.

Positive train control is already installed in parts of the U.S. The system is designed to prevent two trains from traveling on the same track at the same time.

That's what happened early Sunday in Cayce, South Carolina, when the New York-to-Miami Amtrak passenger train hit the parked CSX Corp. freight train.

Two Amtrak employees, a conductor and an engineer, were killed and more than 100 passengers were treated at hospitals for injuries. It was the third fatal Amtrak train crash in less than two months.

So why hasn't the system been widely implemented? Both industry experts and rail companies say in large part it comes down to costs and the sheer size of the nation's rail system.

After a collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people, Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring railroads to adopt the technology on all tracks that carry passenger trains.

Positive train control relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains that are in danger of colliding, derailing from excessive speed, or about to enter track where crews are working or that is otherwise off limits.

Railroads were given seven years to start using the technology across the country's 20,000 locomotives and 60,000 miles of track. But when it became clear that few if any railroads would meet the deadline, Congress extended it another three years to Dec. 31, 2018, with the option to grant railroads that show progress an additional two years to Dec. 31, 2020. Several freight railroads have previously told the government they won't be able to meet the 2018 deadline.

Overall, freight railroads have implemented PTC on 56 percent of required route miles, according to the Association of American Railroads. The association said it's not clear yet how many of the seven large freight railroads operating in the U.S. will require extensions.

In some areas of the northeastern U.S., where Amtrak owns both railways and locomotives, the company has been able to successfully set up PTC. But in areas like South Carolina, the tracks are owned by freight companies like CSX.

During a conference call with reporters, Amtrak President Robert Anderson said Sunday's crash underscores the importance of meeting the year-end deadline for widespread implementation.

CSX, which operates throughout the eastern U.S., has already spent more than $1.2 billion on PTC systems, according to congressional testimony by company executive Frank Lonegro in 2015. On its website, the company says it's also been limited by lengthy review processes needed to implement the system on 15,000 miles of track.

Amid the renewed calls for action, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation Mary Schiavo said the system needs to be installed everywhere because "lives are at stake."

"People aren't focused on it until we have tragedies," Schiavo said.

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Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles, and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report, along with AP video journalist Josh Replogle.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at https://apnews.com/search/meg%20kinnard.

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Self-proclaimed white nationalist banned from Seattle gym

Published: Monday, February 19, 2018 @ 12:07 AM

A Seattle gym banned Greg Johnson, a self-proclaimed white nationalist. (Photo: KIRO7.com)
A Seattle gym banned Greg Johnson, a self-proclaimed white nationalist. (Photo: KIRO7.com)

A self-proclaimed white nationalist was banned from a Fremont gym after the owners learned he is a leader in the alt-right community.

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The owners of Northwest Fitness Project say Greg Johnson is longer welcome there.

“The trainer terminated his contract and we banned him from the gym,” said Kyle Davis, a co-owner of the gym.

It's a move that has some people wondering if it violates a city ordinance that says "places of public accommodation" can't discriminate based on a person's beliefs.

But the owners of the gym say that ordinance doesn't apply -- because it’s not a public space. To use the space, you must be the client of a trainer.

“There’s no open gym membership, it's not like people can come and go as they please,” Davis said. “Trainers come and run their own businesses out of this location."

“There's a right of first refusal of the independent trainer. And (the trainer) chose to not work with him anymore due to the harm it would cause his reputation, and not wanting to be associated with those views,” Davis said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Greg Johnson an "international figure for white nationalism” and “one of the leading voices of the far-right.”

In September 2017, the New York Times interviewed him undercover and posted it on its website.

In the interview, Johnson says, “I would identify myself as a white nationalist. That states the goals I have politically.”

When asked about people who are Jewish, Johnson says, “The solution would ultimately (be) to expel them.”

Davis said he’s disturbed to hear Johnson’s views.

“I would feel threatened, yes,” he said. “I'm converting to Judaism, my fiancée is Jewish and we want to raise our kids Jewish.”

The owners say after Johnson was banned, a white nationalist publication told followers to post negative reviews on the gym's Yelp and Facebook pages.

“We were at a five (star average review); it went down to a three,” said Matthew Holland, the other co-owner of Northwest Fitness Project.

But hundreds of people supported the gym on social media, helping it bounce back.

“Now we're to like a 4.8,” Holland said. “We have a great community and we didn't realize how awesome they all were. Going through a rough time like this, it was just so encouraging.”

The Puget Sound Anarchists first published last week that Johnson lives in Seattle. It’s also how the gym owners found out about Johnson’s beliefs.

Johnson did not comment.

The gym said it heard Johnson left the area.

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Several sinkholes open in Florida neighborhood, threaten homes

Published: Sunday, February 18, 2018 @ 11:24 PM

Several sinkholes opened in a Florida neighborhood. (Photo: WFTV.com)
Several sinkholes opened in a Florida neighborhood. (Photo: WFTV.com)

Several sinkholes opened in The Villages Thursday, threatening several homes, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said. 

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Four homes have been evacuated. Officials said the largest of the three holes is 35 feet deep and 18 feet wide. 

One of the sinkholes that opened up is outside Frank Newman’s home.

He said he heard strange sounds and wasn’t sure what was going on.

“At about 12:30 I was watching the Olympics when I heard something that I thought was thunder,” Newman said.

Hours later, he found out what was actually going on.

“My front door bell rings about 3:10. It was a policeman saying, ‘You got to get out of your house,’” Newman said.

Marion County Emergency Management was also at the scene and said that utilities to the four closest homes have been disconnected as a precaution.

The sinkholes go beneath two of the homes.

Photos: Sinkholes open in Villages neighborhood

Cracks formed outside Newman’s neighbor’s home and a hole opened up near her front door.

“In her house, she is seeing cracks inside the house on the floor and stuff,” Newman said. “She can’t get her car out of the garage because the garage door won’t open.”

Signs have been placed outside some of the homes warning the houses have been condemned.

Golf course officials are draining a lake to help the situation. Utilities officials said that if a water main break occurs, they will be able to handle it, but 20 homes could potentially lose water service if that happens.

Residents were allowed to briefly return to their homes to pick up some belongings.

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Broward County Sheriff visits Parkland school shooting victim in hospital

Published: Sunday, February 18, 2018 @ 8:57 PM

Victims of the Florida High School Mass Shooting

The Broward County sheriff said he was honored to visit a young student who survived the Feb. 14 South Florida school shooting that's left a community reeling. 

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The Broward County Sheriff's Office published a photo of Sheriff Scott Israel holding the hand of Anthony Borges, 15, in his hospital room.

"Fortunately, he is recovering -- but has a long road ahead with more surgeries needed," the Sheriff's Office posted. "Please join us in praying for the swift recovery of Anthony and all the other victims of this horrific criminal act."

The Sheriff's Office said in the Facebook post that Borges was shot five times during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Seventeen people, including students and staff, were killed in the shooting.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, who admitted to the shooting, remains in custody at the Broward County jail after being ordered held without bond on 17 counts of premeditated murder.

As memorials for the shooting victims continue, students are demanding tighter gun control and walkouts are being planned in the wake of the tragedy. 

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Maryland family, awarded $37 million in police shooting, may not get the full amount

Published: Sunday, February 18, 2018 @ 2:18 PM

Korryn Gaines was a 23-year-old woman shot and killed by Baltimore police. Her family won a verdict against law enforcement for an initial $37 million. Gaines was shot and killed in her Randallstown home after a six-hour standoff with officers. A jury found the officer who killed her did not act reasonably.

BALTIMORE — The verdict of more than $37 million won by the family of Korryn Gaines, who was shot and killed by police two years ago, is one of the largest ever against law enforcement officers in Maryland.

But legal experts question whether her family will get all that money. Maryland’s cap on local governments’ liabilities in such cases — and the propensity of judges to lower large awards on appeal — make it unlikely that Gaines’ relatives and her young son, Kodi, will see the full amounts.

“While that’s a tremendous verdict, it’s certainly going to be subjected to challenges left and right,” said attorney Andrew G. Slutkin, who was not involved in the Gaines case but is regularly involved in large civil-claims cases.

“This will be litigated for years,” Slutkin said. “It’s going to be subjected to many motions in the trial court and the appellate courts as well.”

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Gaines, 23, was shot and killed in her home in Randallstown, an unincorporated community in Baltimore County, in August 2016 after a six-hour standoff with police. Kodi — who was 5 at the time — was struck by gunfire twice, in the face and the elbow.

A jury found that the first shot from the police officer who fired at Gaines was not reasonable, and therefore violated her and her son’s civil rights under state and federal statutes. The jury Friday awarded more than $32 million in damages to Kodi, $4.5 million for his sister, Karsyn, and smaller amounts to other family members.

However, the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which stems from a law enacted in the 1980s, generally limits a local government’s payout in a lawsuit to $400,000 per plaintiff, or $800,000 for claims connected to a single incident.

Even so, Baltimore County could be on the hook for more, experts said, because the jury found that the officer who shot and killed Gaines violated her and her son’s federal constitutional rights, the penalties for which are not capped by state law.

A. Dwight Pettit, who often represents plaintiffs who sue police officers but wasn’t involved in this case, predicted an intense fight in the appellate courts. “You’re starting at least at $800,000 and it could be more if the constitutional claims survive,” he said.

“A lot of these jurisdictions have become emboldened by the cap,” Pettit said. “They don’t think they have real exposure. If these jurisdictions had to pay out these large amounts of money, these police brutality cases would go away very, very quickly.”

Pettit won the largest jury award in Maryland history against a law enforcement officer in 2004 — a $105 million civil verdict against former Baltimore Police Officer Rodney Price, who killed a man he believed was having an affair with his wife.

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But a judge reduced that to about $27 million, and Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals ruled in 2006 that Price was not “acting within the scope of his employment” and therefore Baltimore’s government was not responsible for paying anything at all.

Plaintiffs have had a hard time collecting other large awards against police.

In 2006, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded $44 million to Albert Mosley because of a 2003 encounter with an officer inside a city jail cell that left Mosley a quadriplegic.

Former Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson said the city refused to pay the multimillion-dollar verdict in the case — arguing that it wasn’t responsible for covering awards against police officers who were found to have acted with malice — and eventually the plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to a $1 million payout.

Regarding the Gaines case, Nilson said: “Any award against the county would be subject to the state cap.”

Baltimore County government attorney Mike Field issued a statement after Friday’s verdict, saying the county is reviewing its options in the Gaines case, “including an appeal.”

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