It has been five years, and Chris Gray still doesn’t know what went wrong. He remembers hustling to enter the door of an underground Muni train at the Van Ness Station late in the evening of Jan. 15, 2003, when, in an instant, something went terribly awry.
Instead of boarding the train, Gray, who has been blind since birth, mistakenly stepped in between the gap of the two-car train and tumbled off the platform, resulting in a broken femur and a harrowing near-death experience.
“I can’t exactly remember how I was positioned when I fell,” Gray said. “I just remember yelling, ‘Stop the train! Stop the train!’ I was very lucky that a couple of passengers pulled me out of the tracks, because I knew the train operator could not see me.”
There wereno barriers on the Muni platform preventing him from his painful fall — an omission still uncorrected five years later.
Gray received a $100,000 settlement from The City for his injuries, and now he and his attorneys are involved in further litigation with the Municipal Transportation Agency to ensure a plan is in place to prevent any more blind passengers from falling between the gaps of Muni cars.
Along with Gray, two other blind commuters have fallen in between Muni cars in recent years, according to Richard Kashdan, Gray’s attorney. One was a man spotlighted by The Examiner in January who was saved by a fast-acting Muni employee.
The MTA, which oversees Muni, experimented with placing bollards — short vertical posts — on elevated Muni platforms to line up with the gaps of arriving trains, Kashdan said, but those barriers were in violation of guidelines set by the California Public Utilities Commission — the state’s governing body — that require a minimum of 30 inches of clearance from a platform edge. The MTA informally asked for an exemption from the state law, but was denied, Kashdan said.
MTA spokesman Judson True said the department is taking the issue very seriously and is working diligently to correct the matter, but could not comment on specifics because of the ongoing litigation.
An additional hazard facing visually-impaired travelers is that the tapered end of Muni’s light-rail vehicles — designed to allow 90-degree turns on above-ground routes — actually leads blind residents into the gaps of the cars, according to Wendy Scheffers, an orientation and mobility instructor at San Francisco State.
“When a blind person is looking for the door opening, we instruct them to follow the side of the car with their cane,” Scheffers said. “The tapered ends of Muni trains can lead a blind person right into the gap between the cars.”
True pointed out that the MTA’s Web site specifically advises blind patrons to make sure to locate the floor with their cane before entering any doorways.