Company claims bus door wasn’t meant to open automatically

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
The right-hand turn from Sanford Avenue onto Mt. Vernon Place in Newark, going west, was where a fatally injured passenger was found lying on the street near the tree, at right. According to Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Adam Wells at bus driver Fayola Howard’s arraignment on March 2, Kevin Thomas ran alongside the bus yelling for it to stop while Howard yelled at him to remove his hand. He was dragged beneath the vehicle and died from his injuries on Jan. 6.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The NJ Transit bus door that trapped a passenger’s hand on New Year’s Eve with fatal results, causing him to run alongside the bus as it drove away and ultimately be dragged beneath the vehicle, was not made to open automatically if it became obstructed, a company spokeswoman said.

According to Nancy Snyder, the chief NJT communications officer, in a telephone interview on March 6, the “sensitive edge technology” that would allow a bus door to reopen automatically if prevented from closing completely, was “not an option for that door on that bus.” To the best of her knowledge, she said, no NJT bus is equipped with that technology on both front and back doors.

“Our drivers are trained to operate the front door to allow passengers to get on and off the bus safely,” she said. “This technology is on the back door, because the operator is not there. It’s built into the weather stripping, to open if obstructed. And in the back, passengers only deboard.”

But in an incident that Newark Superior Court Judge Ronald Wigler called “outrageous” and “horrific,” township resident and 2005 Bloomfield High School graduate Fayola Howard, 34, is alleged to have knowingly driven a bus with a passenger’s hand caught in the door and the passenger outside the bus.

According to the Newark Police Department accident report, a No. 1 Newark–Ivy Hill bus had stopped at the corner of Sanford Avenue and Mount Vernon Place, Newark, to let off passengers. A female passenger had forgotten her bag, and, seeing this, Newark resident Kevin Thomas, 55, told the bus driver to let him out so he could return it. He stepped off the bus and handed the woman her bag.

“Once Mr. Thomas turned around to go inside the bus, the bus driver closed the door on Mr. Thomas, but his hand was stuck between the doors,” the report said. “The bus driver then drove and made a right turn into Mount Vernon Place. Mr. Thomas was screaming and being dragged like 25 feet. Once he had gotten loose, the bus tires ran over both Mr. Thomas’ legs. The NJT bus fled westbound.”

According to Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Adam Wells at Howard’s arraignment on March 2, Thomas ran alongside the bus yelling for it to stop while Howard yelled at him to remove his hand. Thomas died from his injuries on Jan. 6. At her arraignment, Howard entered a plea of not guilty for vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident and falsifying an accident report. She has been in custody since her arrest on Feb. 18 at Newark International Airport. Wigler denied her bail.

Howard’s attorney, Michael Robbins, said she did not know the bus ran over Thomas and told Wigler that, if she had stopped the bus and looked around, she thought she would have seen Thomas standing on the street. Wigler said it was possible that Howard did not know the bus had run over Thomas. The NPD accident report said the incident happened at 1:45 p.m.

According to Harmeet Singh, whose mother owns a Conoco gas station diagonally across from where the accident took place, he arrived about three minutes after Thomas was run over. The police responded quickly to the accident, he said.

“They didn’t move him for a while,” he said of Thomas. “His legs were apart and he was on his back. Pedestrians tried talking to him.”

Within a week, the police came to obtain a copy of the recording from the gas station security camera. Singh said the camera is high-definition and, when the bus ran over Thomas’ legs, the bus tipped. The police also told him that Thomas had hit his head badly on the pavement. A number of days later, NJT investigators came and wanted a copy of the recording, too. Singh said they told him that Thomas had died.

“Our own stuff gets deleted after two weeks,” he said of the security recordings. “Our hard drive doesn’t hold that much stuff.”

Howard is scheduled to be in court on Friday, March 20.