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Could MTA barriers have prevented death?

October 22, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Earlier this year, ABC7's exclusive investigation of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority led to improvements in the way the MTA serves its disabled passengers in wheelchairs.This is the story of a blind man named Cameron Cuthbertson who died in a tragic rail incident. His family has filed a lawsuit accusing the MTA of negligence. The story is disturbing, and be warned: some of the video is also disturbing.

"When I think about the last moments of his life -- that's the worst part," said Mary Cuthbertson, Cameron's mother.

Mary Cuthbertson doesn't want her son Cameron's death to be in vain.

"I hope this will make a change in safety for all people, especially handicapped people," said Mary.

Cameron Cuthbertson, 48, was blind, but he worked hard to maintain his independence. He was trying to board the MTA Blue Line in January when he mistook the gap between the rail cars for the door.

"Because he was blind, he couldn't distinguish between the two," said attorney Bob Stoll. "And unfortunately, when his cane found an opening he stepped forward onto the tracks."

One witness to Cameron's death did not want to be identified.

"We heard him screaming. Everyone heard it on the car," said the unidentified witness. "It was surrounding us. And it was -- everyone just kind of looked at each other in shock."

Eyewitness News obtained MTA video of the incident. Cameron Cuthbertson can be seen falling into the gap between two of the rail cars. There was no barrier to prevent it.

From the angle, you can see what happens as the train begins to pull away.

"He's trying to pull himself off the tracks and onto the platform," said Stoll. "The train begins to move and it essentially severs his body in half."

Passengers onboard heard Cameron screaming for help, but it was too late.

"I can't imagine what he was thinking, you know, when he heard the doors closing above him and he realized what was happening," said the unidentified witness. "That just must've been terrifying, and I think about how terrible that was."

Cameron's death could have been prevented.

The California Council of the Blind has been pushing the MTA to install barriers for years.

"In my opinion, this should've been done years ago," said Donna Pomerantz, president of the California Council of the Blind.

The Council expressed its disappointment with the MTA over Cameron's "tragic and preventable death."

"It makes me sad," said Pomerantz. "I believe it was unnecessary."

"I'm going to miss growing old with him," said Colen Cuthbertson, Cameron's brother. "I never thought his life would end like this."

The MTA's own documents acknowledge that federal law requires the MTA to provide systems that "prevent, deter or warn individuals from inadvertently stepping off the platform between cars."

But the MTA says it did not have to comply on the Blue Line because those rail cars were built before the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. The MTA's Blue Line opened on July 14, 1990.

The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law 12 days later.

"They knew there was a problem with people falling between the cars and they've know that as a safety issue for years and years," said disability rights advocate Kurt Baldwin.

New York City officials knew it was a safety issue as far back as 1910. Rail cars from the early 1900s all had barriers.

The MTA says it has been trying to find a more comprehensive solution for many years.

Last fall, the MTA began testing yellow, platform-based barriers on the Gold Line with hopes of eventually using them on other lines as well.

But before the state-mandated testing phase was over, Cameron Cuthbertson was killed.

"It's just too bad that someone's life had to be the price to pay," said Mary, Cameron's mother.

The very day of Cameron's death, the MTA sent a letter to state regulators asking them to speed up the approval process.

In March, they received permission to install the new yellow barriers system-wide.

"It's very hard," said Mary when she visited the site of her son's death. "This is the first time I've been here."

Cameron's mother and brother told Eyewitness News they did not want to sue the MTA, but felt it was the only way to ensure this kind of death wouldn't happen again.

"If we all just take a little more time to help one another, especially those people who are handicapped, marginal and challenged, it would make the world a much better place," said Colen, Cameron's brother.

The MTA denied an Eyewitness News request for an on-camera interview because the case is the subject of a lawsuit. The organization responded to some questions in writing, saying numerous attempts to install barriers were hampered by the state's regulatory red tape.

The entire MTA statement is here: MTA rail car barriers statement


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