What If?

A Metro Driver Reflects on the Aurora Tragedy and Its Aftermath

At 3:15 pm, when Route 359 crashed through the Aurora Bridge guardrail, I was driving a trolley bus—No. 13 over Queen Anne Hill. The coordinator asked all drivers to pick up their handsets for a message. It was a fairly typical message: accident on the Aurora Bridge; reroutes for any bus crossing it; 16 go this way, 5 go that way, so on and so on. I pictured my fianc饬 Ruth, and my 9-year-old daughter, Angel, at home playing with the dogs on the living-room floor: smiles, laughs, a lot of rolling around. Then I thought about what a pain in the neck the Aurora closure was—Ruth and Angel were planning to pick me up after work to go out for pizza. Since we live in Ballard and the bridge would have been the most direct path to my base, I would have to call them so we could work out an alternate route.

It was 3:30 when my brother called Ruth and asked grimly, “Where’s John?”

“At work, why?”

“What route does he drive?” My route changes every day, so my brother couldn’t know which one I was working.

“13, why? What’s up?” Now Ruth was alarmed. “What’s up?” she asked again.

“It’s not John,” Steve said, relieved. He knew the bus routes. “Turn on the TV—Channel 5.”

Ruth did, and saw the aerial view of the cracked bus and the broken bodies. Angel, her eyes wide and anxious, turned and heard her say, “It’s not your father. He drives a trolley—there are no wires over the Aurora Bridge. . . .”

Every driver’s family—more than 2,000 in all—went through their own version of this story, culminating in: “What if?” As did countless families and friends who wondered whether someone they knew was on that bus. I had friends and relatives calling from all over the country—not only to determine whether I was driving the bus, but to find a way to come to terms with a tragedy that struck emotional chords throughout the Northwest and beyond.

At 4pm, while I was on break, I called Ruth to tell her what alternate route to take. I had only heard enough to know the Aurora Bridge was out. My coordinator had confirmed the bus reroutes with a second announcement and had noted that there were multiple injuries on 359, but had said nothing about the driver, the shootings, the deaths.

“You’ve heard, haven’t you?” Ruth asked.

“Yeah—you’re going to have to take a different route to pick me. . . .”

“John, I’ve got the TV on right now.” I had phoned her only a half-mile from the scene of the crash, and now began noticing the distant fluttering of news choppers. “A Metro bus just drove off the Aurora Bridge—they think the driver is dead.”

After a few seconds of silence, I asked, “How many people were on it?”

“They don’t know.”

Well, I didn’t have much time left on my break, so I told Ruth the best way to come pick me up, then finished my route. As passengers boarded the bus, they filled in the details the coordinator had spared me. With each new passenger came one more gruesome bit of information: The driver did die . . . more than 30 people on the bus . . . they don’t know how many are dead . . . two have died so far . . . they think a passenger shot the driver in the arm. . . .

Plenty of drivers resented the coordinator’s omissions, because it made them feel isolated. But I thought it prudent of him to have handled it the way he did. Something this bizarre is incomprehensible, and something this incomprehensible tends to inspire an explosive response.

As it was, I could barely manage to take in what Ruth told me. I found myself turning trite and detached when I discussed it with passengers in the ensuing minutes. I spoke of it as if it had happened in Moscow. Some passenger would be rattling off gory details, and my mind would wander strangely. I couldn’t feel the steering wheel in my hands or the seat beneath me. I would turn corners without judging distances. And though my passengers kept talking, I eventually stopped hearing them.

The fact is, I couldn’t begin to comprehend what had happened because it made absolutely no sense. I was numb—and I believe the entire city was numb.

AS FAR AS THE GUARDRAILS on the Aurora Bridge go, I am convinced the engineers never believed it possible that a driver of any vehicle could be shot point-blank while traveling 40 miles per hour, and that the vehicle would turn at such an efficient radius—maintaining speed and not braking—that it would actually have the necessary angle to crash through it. I am further convinced that they never envisioned a man pointlessly murdering the driver of a moving 60-foot bus, then committing suicide, thus creating a spectacle equal and opposite to what we like to call a miracle.

The number of improbabilities that surround this event make you wonder why the chief shop steward at Atlantic Base would say, “It was bound to happen.”

As a driver for six and one-half years now, I have no interest in focusing on the person who caused the tragedy. Nor do I think it was bound to happen. The event was simply impossible—like something that happens in a dream or a movie. Yet it happened. Anyone taking in that simple fact had to have felt at least a shiver of uncertainty over the question of whether life makes sense. The utter improbability of the event heightened our fear and sorrow, and our disbelief and incomprehension in the wake of it are made all the greater because the incident was so random and unpredictable.

For the passengers on 359, it was horrifying (and, for some, fatal). For the drivers, supervisors, management, and administration of King County Metro, it was a shake-up that made a thousand of us weep in fear and anger, and it moved reality at least one notch over from its previous position. Because suddenly we had to wonder just how safe we should feel when we go to work. Two days after the crash, I asked a fellow I had trained with how he was doing. “I’m all right,” he replied, “but, I’ll tell you what: I look at everyone who gets on my bus a lot closer now.”

“C’mon now, don’t get paranoid,” I answered. “It was a fluke.” But then I realized I wasn’t being fair. His fear is real. And in the days immediately following the Route 359 tragedy, we all were consumed with very real fears. But as time goes on, most of us will revert to a relatively confident state. As Metro Transit and its millions of passengers move away from No- vember 27, the bitter memory of Mark McLaughlin’s and Herman Liebelt’s last day will never leave us, but drivers gradually will feel safe again, and passengers will board with confidence again. This will happen because King County, the union, the drivers, and the passengers will respond in the only way humanly possible to the calamity: with enough ambition and action to overcome the crash’s essential absurdity. We will take the impossible and turn it into something tangible; we will make the concrete changes necessary to put our lives back in order, to believe in the reliability of the world.

I HAVE SAID THAT I HAVE no interest in the assailant. In my mind, he never existed. Naturally, the subject of “mental problems” surfaced during one of our debriefings (actually, these were more like group therapy sessions, six of which Metro held so that employees could commiserate and vent our anger and sadness over the tragedy, along with the question of whether the assailant even knew what he was doing). To which transit supervisor Fred Olander, a candid and equitable man, responded, “He’s cured.”

Fred had known Mark McLaughlin for 20 years—since he trained him to drive.

I have also mentioned that I do not believe that this was “bound to happen.” Because to say that it was bound to happen is to say that it could have been prevented. Yet police officers have told me unequivocally that a SWAT team sitting right on the bus could not have prevented this. So the question becomes, exactly what was bound to happen? The string of events between the circumstances leading from the assailant’s pulling of the trigger and the bus actually finding its way off the bridge so defy mathematical odds that you could never put the whole package into the category of things for which you could prepare, and thus prevent.

It’s better to focus on the “normal” things that happened that day. And when I say normal, I mean the things that happen every day—the kinds of things, in the words of Paul Bachtel, the former chief shop steward at North Base who worked alongside Mark, that created an “atmosphere of lawlessness on the No. 6 route. It’s not just the maniac, it’s also Joe Public.” In this connection, I remember one night when I was driving downtown on Third Avenue at about 7:45pm on the No. 7 line. Many people know this to be the line carrying the most passengers in 1997—5.5 million in all. Many people also know this to be the route with the most “incidents.” One of the passengers contributing to that statistical category was an expensively dressed, attractive woman in her late forties. She boarded the bus, smiled pleasantly, and continued on to find a seat. After 7pm there is no free-ride zone, so I issued my standard plea to a person who passed the farebox without paying: “Pay as you enter, please.”

She calmly turned around, her face smiling smugly in my mirror. Then she came forward and mentioned the free-ride zone. I told her it was after 7pm. Because she was smiling, I thought we were pleasantly bantering. But then she blasted me with insults. “You’re a goddamn bus driver, I don’t have to listen to you!” Then I made the mistake of trying to reason with her. I didn’t notice that she was drunk until her frustration boiled over. She leaned over close to my ear and said in a deeper and more stern voice, “Look, I’ve got a hundred-dollar bill in my pocket—I’ll stuff it down your fucking throat!” I was reaching for the silent emergency alarm to call for help when she got off at the very next stop.

BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO maintain some perspective. There are almost as many opinions about the level of safety on buses as there are people with opinions. When I began working full-time in 1991, the driver who trained me said that when he worked the No. 7, there was a fight every night. During my first full year working that route—four nights a week until 2am—there was only one fight. Four youths were pummeling one, and when I opened the back door to release the little monsters, they fled. I asked the victim if he needed immediate assistance. “No,” he said, ducking his bloodied and bruised head. I told him I had called the police. “No! Don’t do that!” The police came anyway, but got no information because the boy wouldn’t talk.

Do I feel threatened by that? No, because I am detached and I intentionally drive in denial. The pummeling was not directed at me, so my approach enabled me to accept the incident as part of my job. And I simply don’t believe I will be attacked.

But that’s my perspective. It allows me to feel safe. It’s not every driver’s perspective.

In 1997, Paul Bachtel’s brother, Mike, passed around a petition asking that security be improved on the No. 6 route. (The No. 6 is the parent route for the 359, the ill-fated Aurora bus.) Two hundred and two drivers signed it, partly because of their own experience and partly because 25 percent of all assaults during one six-month period in 1997 were on the No. 6 route. Mike gathered the signatures and presented it to the King County Council, County Executive Ron Sims, and Mayor Paul Schell. The response? “We’ve checked it out and we don’t find that there is a problem.” When Mike argued his case further, he was told there were no funds.

My guess is that those people working for the county who concluded that there is no security problem never drove the No. 6 route for 40 hours a week. One of my brothers, a regular 359 passenger, used to complain to me frequently that nothing happens to the people who cause problems. The driver ignores it while we wonder what’s going to happen next, he’d say.

And I say that somewhere between the idea that Mark McLaughlin’s fateful day was bound to happen and the notion that there’s no security problem on Route 6 lies reality.

SINCE THE CRASH, I have seen a camaraderie rising—a definite sense that we drivers will stick together. Certain drivers never waved when they passed one another, and now they do. Drivers of diesel buses now wave when passing trolley-bus operators. One driver told me he has noticed a kind of tribalism among us. Others, listening, agreed. You see a knowing look now in the eyes of fellow operators. When the question came up as to whether operators would go to work or attend Mark McLaughlin’s memorial last week, one driver said, “Nothing could make me miss the memorial.” He said he would follow all the appropriate channels to be excused from work and if that wasn’t enough, he would call in sick. When I asked him why, he said, “Because we owe it to Mark. And ourselves. Mark took those bullets for us. It just as easily could have been any one of us. We’ve got to send a message.”

Let it be clear then, that the drivers are united as never before. This time of heightened uncertainty has made drivers able to look to each other as the most understanding and determined resource for regaining a proper perspective on our lives and livelihoods.

THE FLUKE NATURE of this tragedy has two pitfalls: It allows those responsible for carrying out concrete solutions to security issues—union and management—to minimize very real driver concerns and do too little because the perpetrator was a “nut job,” the catastrophe too random to be repeatable; and it can get blown so far out of proportion that it creates enormous uncertainty about bus service and security, and makes it impossible for us to work together on solutions. (One person, who wishes to remain anonymous, suggests that the union is to management what Igor is to Dr. Frankenstein, and that failing to address driver concerns would be equivalent to creating a monster.)

The question of driver and passenger safety is a serious one. As I’ve said, the level of safety is either at an all-time low or an all-time high, depending on who’s talking. I’m under the impression that I get fewer hassles than other drivers, so my estimation of the level of safety is that it is tolerable—for me. But I am just one driver. For as long as I can remember, drivers have been complaining about the slow response time of transit police and supervisors. Maybe they’re exaggerating—there will always be those who exaggerate. But there will also always be those who choose to say nothing of their negative experiences because they handle it the same way I do: The less they talk about it, the less it seems to be there. It’s a kind of well-placed denial, an acceptance of the job’s inherent dangers. It’s the simplest way to get rid of any wide-ranging fear and limit one’s feelings of fear to reactions to specific events. Like the time a young man told me to give him two transfers, one for him and one for his “bitch.” I was infuriated. But then he put his face a half-inch from mine, and yes, I was frightened. And angry. And humiliated. He got his two transfers.

Not everyone can set aside fear of the possible as easily as I can. I discovered this at a debriefing. Many people suffered from an epistemological crisis, a flood of possibilities. Essentially, drivers wanted to know what to do. One woman said that if she doesn’t go back to work right away, she feared she never would—yet she couldn’t bring herself to sit in that seat again. If something like that can happen to fellow driver Mark McLaughlin, what can happen to me? If something that impossible can happen to him, tell me why I shouldn’t believe that something very possible will happen to me?

That’s the driver’s fundamental question at this point. The range of people who step onto my bus is mind-boggling. Take five people at any given downtown stop. The first is swearing uncontrollably and slobbering. The second is a kind white guy in a tie. The third limps, and her face is sullen. The fourth is a gangsta who takes an unnecessary step toward you, then whoops and hollers all the way to the back of the bus, joining several equally loud friends. The fifth is a mild old black woman who tells you it’s gonna get sunny today. Nothing happens. I am not hurt, threatened, or even inconvenienced. Five people get on the bus. Most likely, all of them will have some form of payment.

Yet I challenge anyone to suggest that this is not an atmosphere charged with too many possibilities. What if? is an everyday question, and although my personal perspective is such that I would measure the level of safety as being reasonably high, I have no way of persuading anyone that one view is accurate.

IN AUGUST OF THIS YEAR, right off an entrance to the Aurora Bridge, a deboarding man asked the driver of his bus if he was having a nice day. Then he pulled out a gun, pointed it at the driver’s head, and pulled the trigger twice. Either the gun was not loaded or it misfired. The driver now has identified his assailant as the same man who shot Mark McLaughlin. For two weeks, police last August searched the area around the stop where the man got off, and came up empty. Perhaps more effective security on the bus would have caught him then. Or perhaps not. I’ll hazard a guess that the passengers on Mark’s bus, and their friends and families, would prefer that Metro had taken greater security measures back when the drivers requested them. I also believe that the county and the union now wish that they had spent “funds they didn’t have” on more effective transit security rather than having to spend “funds they don’t have” on medical bills, a new bus, bridge reconstruction, and lawyers.

But the blame game is common these days, because it’s so easy to play. The truth is, that if this incident tells us anything about transit security, it is that it is a complex problem. Instead of asking who is to blame, we could be asking who will take responsibility for what. I contend that county and management will be moved to give us tangible and concrete security solutions—something we can see with our eyes. I contend that the union will work with them to make it feasible despite an adversarial political and financial environment. I contend that we drivers will make better decisions about how to handle disruptive passengers, and will take personal responsibility for coping with our endless series of petty—and not so petty—conflicts. I know I will.

And one more thing: To the countless passengers who have been extra-kind these past several days: A lot of drivers have noticed, and we appreciate it. Thank you.

Metro driver John Flavin was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1966 and moved to Seattle in 1986. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in political science and comparative history of ideas, and recently finished his first manuscript—a satirical novel. He has a 9-year-old daughter and is engaged to be married. Comments can be directed to him at jcflavin@earthlink.com.

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