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Driver in S.F. rail crash reportedly blacked out

/ Source: The Associated Press

The four most seriously injured victims in a weekend light-rail crash were improving Monday, as a union official said the operator of the train had blacked out just before the collision with a parked train.

Two of the victims were in good condition, one was fair and the fourth had been transferred to another hospital for non-medical reasons, said Rachael Kagan, spokeswoman for San Francisco General Hospital.

A total of 47 people were injured in the crash, including the driver. A total of 15 were seen in the General Hospital emergency room Saturday. Eleven were treated and released.

Attorney Matthew Davis, whose firm is representing two victims, said one client had six broken ribs and the other sustained facial lacerations and a concussion.

Meanwhile, Irwin Lum, president of San Francisco's transit workers union, told The Associated Press a "medical condition" was to blame for the driver's loss of consciousness.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency identified the driver Monday as Henry Gray. The agency said Gray started as a San Francisco bus driver in 1979 and switched to light rail in 2007.

Officials released no other details about his identity, citing the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash.

Federal investigators reported Sunday that Gray had turned off the train's automatic controls moments before the collision.

Lum said drivers under pressure to keep their trains running on time turn off the controls before entering the West Portal station to speed loading and unloading.

"Basically it was understood that it was OK based on the fact that passengers were complaining about long waits getting to the platform," Lum said.

Judson True, a spokesman for the transportation agency, responded that said "any suggestion that safety is not the top priority of SFMTA is wrongheaded."

The agency referred all questions regarding the crash investigation to the NTSB.

"We will do everything we can to ensure that this sort of accident never happens again," Nathaniel Ford, executive director of the San Francisco agency, said in a statement.

The NTSB's Turpin said the operator never engaged the emergency brake, and a mechanical inspection of the train that caused the accident has so far not uncovered any problems.

'No good answer'
Investigators had not yet interviewed Gray and typically wait until a crash victim's health has improved before conducting interviews. Gray had not been involved in any major accidents before Saturday, Lum said.

A drug test was administered, which is standard procedure for crashes.

Davis said the trains are equipped with video cameras that should let investigators see if the driver blacked out after switching the train's controls to manual.

"There's no good answer for the city. Clearly they are responsible when one of their vehicles hits the other," said Davis, who worked for seven years in the San Francisco City Attorney's office on transit cases.

It was the nation's fourth major rail accident in 10 months.

In September, a commuter rail train collided with a freight rail in Los Angeles and 25 people died. Authorities said an engineer on the commuter train had been texting on a cell phone.

About 50 people were injured in Boston in May when a trolley rear-ended another trolley. The conductor acknowledged texting when the crash took place. And last month, a subway train rear-ended another in Washington during rush hour, killing nine people.

Legal claims
The last time the NTSB investigated a San Francisco Municipal Railway crash was 1997, when an operator unknowingly dragged a derailed third car 800 feet down a street.

The crash caused $2.2 million in damage when the swaying car slammed into a loading platform. No passengers were on the train at the time, and no one was injured.

Between 2005 and 2009, the agency paid out almost $60 million in legal claims, including millions for deaths and injuries allegedly caused by a variety of MUNI vehicles, according to agency figures.

Prior to Saturday's crash, one person was killed, at least 45 were injured, and a building was severely damaged in six previous MUNI accidents in 2009.

Last week, the agency's board voted to authorize the purchase of a one-year $25 million liability insurance policy for $2.4 million.