The afternoon of May 31, 2008, a vigorous 95-year-old named Alice Mathas spent hours walking around South Beach with her son Paul. Around 7:45 the pair boarded a Miami-Dade bus headed back to their apartment in Bal Harbour.
They didn't make it. As Alice started down the aisle of the crowded bus, the driver pumped the accelerator, and the tiny nonagenarian went crashing forward.
The bus driver, Faydra Cooper, had already racked up a worrying history during five years as a county bus driver. Among others things, she had been cited three times for preventable accidents and once for squatting next to her seat and urinating on the bus floor. She was reprimanded on several occasions and suspended once, but still allowed to get behind the wheel. After the incident, Paul Mathas says, his mom has never been the same.
"[Cooper] should never have been driving," he says. "She should have been fired a long time ago."
The incident illustrates a larger pattern: In Miami-Dade County, home of the largest bus system in the state, bus-related injuries are frequent, bad drivers continue working, and the transit agency routinely skirts responsibility.
A New Times review of Miami-Dade Transit safety records shows that in the first eight months of 2014, county buses hit pedestrians and bicyclists seven times in accidents that were deemed "preventable." Ninety-seven passengers fell while riding, boarding, or exiting buses, and another 56 were otherwise injured. Twenty-seven passengers fell or were injured in March alone.
The descriptions of the passenger incidents raise serious questions about safety on even routine trips. The transit agency wouldn't release the names of injured passengers despite a public records request and months of negotiation, but a registry of the reports describes incidents where a passenger broke the bus' front windshield after a sudden stop, an elderly man's arm got stuck in the front doors, and a woman was hurt when other passengers scrambled toward the exit after seeing the bus emit heavy black smoke.
"They don't care what happens to you," 69-year-old Cristina Lorens, a frequent bus passenger, says of Miami-Dade Transit. "Your fate is sort of in their hands, but as far as they're concerned, you don't exist."
Last December 15, Lorens, who uses a walker because of her severe arthritis, was on her way to the food court at Aventura Mall when the bus she was riding took a 90-degree turn at high speed "and everything went flying," she remembers.
Lorens was sitting facing the aisle. Her bags and the walker went airborne, and when she instinctively leaned forward to catch them, she was also sent flying, landing on her left shoulder and knee. "I was very dizzy," she said. "[There was] bleeding on the elbows and the knees."
As Lorens lay splayed out, the bus continued rolling. "Hey! Hey!" she remembers yelling. "I'm on the floor!" The driver, whom Lorens describes as a slim young woman, finally stopped the bus. But instead of calling for medical help, the driver put on gloves and tried to pick up Lorens herself. Lorens was dazed, frazzled, and in agony. She didn't want the driver to touch her. After several minutes, she pulled herself up using the seat and exited the bus.
"Then [the driver] took off like a bat out of hell," she recalls.
Lorens still suffers from neck and shoulder pain from the fall and sometimes can't even move her arm. In the weeks after the injury, she says, she tried numerous times to obtain video of the incident, only to be repeatedly dodged by the transit agency. (Many buses are equipped with cameras.) Finally, the county stopped answering her and her lawyer's inquiries altogether, she says. "They just give you a runaround."
With a fleet of 800 buses, the county transports an average of 260,000 passengers each weekday. When a driver becomes aware that a passenger is injured, he or she is required to call a central service line before continuing on the route. If the injury is severe, police and rescue workers are summoned. Problem drivers can be suspended or fired.
Emphasizing its commitment to keeping passengers secure, the agency defends its safety practices. "Our operators are trained in defensive driving techniques," says Karla Damian, a spokeswoman. "The number one thing they're trained in is safety."
But some clearly dangerous drivers have still gotten behind the wheel of county buses. On November 29, 2012, 84-year-old Barbara Rubenstein was hit by a bus while she was crossing a busy intersection near Aventura Mall. Rubenstein had the walk signal, but the bus driver was looking only for cars. "The [driver] was going way too fast," Ramon Rasco, an attorney for the Rubenstein family, told the Biscayne Times, which first reported the accident. "He wasn't looking to see if someone was at the intersection."
Rubenstein died within two hours. The bus driver, 34-year-old Jonas Lamonte McLeod, had a driving history rife with violations. As a county bus driver, he had been involved in eight crashes, according to a civil complaint that Rubenstein's family filed. He had also been cited for insubordination, tardiness, and using a cell phone while driving, the Biscayne Times reported.
McLeod's personal driving history was even more egregious. He had racked up 47 citations, among them driving with a suspended license, excessive speed, and careless driving. He paid more than $4,000 in fines and was ordered to attend aggressive driving school, according to the complaint. Once, in 2003 -- the year he was hired as a full-time county bus driver -- he was clocked speeding 101 in a 55 mph zone. "He had a horrible driving record," Rasco tells New Times. "After he hit Barbara, he kind of admitted to not seeing her."
Despite his history, McLeod, who was later fired for an unrelated incident, continued driving. Joel Perez, the general superintendent of the county's bus system, tells New Times the agency enforces a progressive disciplinary system that moves from counseling to reprimand to suspension and termination. But McLeod's past violations weren't enough to warrant a dismissal. "He was still under the standards to drive," Perez says. "We can't really comment further on what the county could have done or not done."
Lawyers and victims also fault the agency for being uncooperative, particularly when it comes to the onboard cameras. "It's rare that the county will give us a video," says Jason Turchin, an attorney from Weston who has represented dozens of people hurt on county buses. (The transit agency denies this claim, saying it complies with every request.)
Turchin and other critics say the county has little financial reason to cooperate with injured passengers or pedestrians. A Florida law caps government settlements at $200,000 barring legislative intervention.
"There's little incentive for [Miami-Dade] to do the right thing," Turchin says. "Yet knowing that so many passengers get hurt on their buses every year -- if they truly care about the safety of the passenger, I would think they have a duty to at least put more safety precautions in place."
After Alice Mathas, the 95-year-old, fell, she immediately began screaming and crying, "I'm hurt! I'm hurt!" An ambulance arrived after a few minutes, and two days later Mathas had surgery. Her right shoulder was shattered. But after five weeks, the woman who had walked for hours around South Beach still could barely shuffle 100 feet. Paul believes she had a stroke while under anesthesia. "It wasn't normal," he says. "She couldn't walk."
While Alice spent the next 50 weeks in and out of the hospital, Paul tried to retrieve information and evidence from the county about the incident. He says he was routinely dismissed. "They wouldn't let us see the tapes," he says. "I said, 'What information can I have?' They said, 'It's not available to you...' They didn't want to cooperate with me."
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Cooper, the bus driver, was fired a few months later for her role in aiding in the theft of a county bus. Paul later sued on behalf of his mother and won an $85,000 settlement, but the majority of the money went to lawyers' fees and medical expenses, he says. "My mother got about $30,000 after all was said and done, and she got it over a period of years, and none of the money was there when she needed it."
Alice Mathas turned 100 last month. But she's changed since the bus accident. Five years ago, Paul says, she spent hours at a time painting, playing the piano, and singing. But after the fall, her health declined precipitously, and she never recovered the full use of her right arm or hand. She could never paint or play the piano like she did before.
"She was fine when all this happened," Paul says. "The whole thing was a useless, senseless, horrible accident that took away my mother's life."